Caps Inch Closer to The Top

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Washington Capitals return from the all-star break tonight against the Montreal Canadiens in a position they haven't been this late since before the lockout that cancelled the 2004-05 season.

Only one point separates them from Carolina for the lead in the Southeast Division with 32 games left, including 14 contests against division foes. A win over the Canadiens, coupled with a loss by the Hurricanes, would vault the Capitals into first place.

"It's not as good as one point in first place, but it's a start," said Coach Bruce Boudreau, who hopes to guide Washington to its first postseason berth since 2002-03. "The race is so close."

It is, indeed. Consider this sobering statistic: While Washington bears down on the Hurricanes, it is also only six points ahead of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who occupy last place in the division and the conference.

In other words, the margin for error is small. So small, in fact, one bad week could spell disaster.

"It's like the playoffs now; we can't afford to lose any more," left wing Donald Brashear said. "If you lose, you can get down deep real quick. But that's fun."

The push begins in earnest at Bell Centre against goalie Cristobal Huet and the Canadiens, who have won six of their eight games since the Capitals handed them a 5-4 overtime loss in Montreal on Jan. 5. Huet boasts a 2.33 goals against average and a 9.22 save percentage, sixth best in the NHL.

Including their win at Bell Centre, the Capitals have won seven of their past nine games, scoring an average 3.89 goals during that span.

"It's going to get harder and harder and we all know that," said goaltender Brent Johnson. "We're going to show what kind of guts we have in this room.

"There's a different feeling [coming out of the break] this year," he added. "We're believing."

Johnson, who is 5-1-0 with a 2.05 and .926 save percentage since Boudreau took over behind the bench on Nov. 22, is expected to get his second consecutive start tonight. He made 31 saves to carry his weary teammates to a 2-1 victory over Toronto last Thursday.

While the three days off for the all-star break gave the Capitals a collective chance to catch their breath, it did little for the injured players. Captain Chris Clark (groin) and defenseman Brian Pothier (concussion) did not skate yesterday at Kettler Capitals Iceplex and there still is no timetable for their return, Boudreau said.

Defenseman Shaone Morrisonn (bruised foot) will be a game-time decision against the Canadiens, Boudreau said. Morrisonn has missed two of the past three games since taking a slap shot off his foot against Florida on Jan. 21.

Although the Capitals have managed to turn around the season despite injuries to key players -- they are also without center Michael Nylander for the season because of shoulder surgery -- there's no denying they would be better off with Clark and Pothier, both playoff-tested veterans, in a lineup short on experience.

"It's going to be an exciting time, but nerve-racking at the same time," veteran defenseman Tom Poti said. "It's all about making the playoffs. If you don't, the season is a disappointment."

Hurricanes center Eric Staal said he his teammates are taking the same approach.

"They've gotten a lot closer than we've hoped," Staal said of the Capitals. "We've got to string together some wins and separate ourselves. We're not where we want to be, but hopefully it will cause us to push ourselves to stay on top of our division."

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