Caps Prep For Crucial Final Week

Caps such as Alexander Semin (28) want to see Alex Ovechkin in the playoffs.
Caps such as Alexander Semin (28) want to see Alex Ovechkin in the playoffs. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
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By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 1, 2008

In his first two NHL seasons, the last week of the regular season didn't have much meaning for Alex Ovechkin, not with the Washington Capitals languishing near the bottom of the league standings.

The next five days, though, are going to mean everything to the league's leading scorer.

"It's probably the most important week in my NHL career," Ovechkin told a larger-than-usual crowd of reporters and cameras at Kettler Capitals Iceplex yesterday morning. "We had that bad feeling the last [two] years because we didn't play for the playoffs."

Tonight, Ovechkin (league-best 62 goals and 109 points) and the Capitals open a three-game homestand against the Carolina Hurricanes with a trip to the postseason -- and the Southeast Division title -- still within their grasp.

Getting there is possible. But their path is not a straight one.

With Carolina, Tampa Bay and Florida visiting Verizon Center, the Capitals likely will need to win all three and have one of the teams ahead of them in the standings -- the Hurricanes, Boston, Philadelphia, the New York Rangers and Ottawa -- stumble to the finish line.

"It gives us an opportunity," Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "But it still isn't completely in our hands. If every team continues to win, even if we win, we're not going to get there. But we firmly believe the big guy will shine on us at some point and something good is going to happen if we continue to play the way we're playing."

Since Boudreau replaced Glen Hanlon behind the bench Nov. 22, the Capitals have gained the fourth-most points in the NHL behind Detroit, San Jose and Pittsburgh. The playoff push has gathered momentum in recent weeks as they have won eight of nine games, a streak that began after back-to-back heartbreaking losses to the Bruins and the Penguins.

But it hasn't been enough. So Ovechkin and his teammates keep an eye on the out-of-town scoreboards during games. They hang around after playing to wait for other games to end, monitoring the pertinent ones on small televisions in the locker room. In the morning, they pore over the conference standings.

"It's not a heart attack," Ovechkin said, grinning. "I like it. What can I say? It's all about great time and all about winning and losing right now. It's fun."

On Sunday night, "I was almost like a fan cheering for Buffalo," said center Brooks Laich, referring to the Bruins-Sabres game. "I jumped out of my couch there when they scored the overtime winner. With teams playing so well, it's tough to make up ground.

"We're still looking at Carolina. We've had them in our sights since Bruce got here. They're holding something that we want."

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