Whoever's On the Ice, Washington Capitals Keep On Winning

Alex Ovechkin reacts to one of his two goals in Tuesday night's comeback win.
Alex Ovechkin reacts to one of his two goals in Tuesday night's comeback win. "We have a great group of guys who play for each other," he said. (By Frank Franklin Ii -- Associated Press)
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By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 26, 2008

Three days after a thrilling come-from-behind win, the Washington Capitals return from the NHL's 48-hour holiday break to host the Buffalo Sabres tonight at Verizon Center.

While it's unclear who will be able to suit up, this much is known: The Capitals have been one of the league's best teams over the past month despite an injury-ravaged lineup that, on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden, was minus eight players who were on the ice opening night.

Since the roster became a virtual revolving door on Nov. 24, they're 10-4-0 and have built a comfortable eight-point edge in the Southeast Division.

In that span, 11 players have been recalled from the American Hockey League's Hershey Bears, five have made their NHL debuts, and even a front-office employee was signed to serve as a backup goaltender. In all, 35 players have donned a Washington jersey this season compared with 26 at this point a year ago.

Part of the reason the Capitals have managed to stay in first place despite the injuries, according to the players and Coach Bruce Boudreau, is because the prospect-rich Bears and Capitals employ almost identical strategies. Another essential ingredient is the almost constant communication between Boudreau and his Hershey counterpart, Bob Woods, whose Bears have managed to stay atop the AHL standings despite sending so many players to Washington.

"It's not easy going through that many people and keeping on winning," New York Rangers Coach Tom Renney said. "It's a testament to their coach and the commitment of their athletes."

Renney paid the Capitals that compliment before Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Co. stunned his Rangers by rallying from a four-goal second-period deficit. Defenseman Shaone Morrisonn's first goal since February capped the improbable comeback in overtime, erased the frustration felt in the aftermath of Saturday's drubbing in Philadelphia, and sent the Capitals into the break with a confidence-boosting 5-4 victory over the team with the Eastern Conference's second-best record.

"It was sick, a sick goal," Ovechkin said of Morrisonn's seventh tally in 307 career games. "How can I say? We have a great group of guys who play for each other."

The exhilarating triumph was made even sweeter for the Capitals because of the minor league-laden lineup. Missing on Tuesday were top defensemen Mike Green (shoulder), Tom Poti (groin muscle) and Jeff Schultz (broken finger); star forwards Alexander Semin (back) and Sergei Fedorov (ankle); enforcer Donald Brashear (leg); and captain Chris Clark (fractured forearm), among others. Goaltender Brent Johnson also left the game after a brief appearance in the first period, suffering from a cold and a leg injury.

Schultz has said he hoped to return this week, possibly as early as tonight, and Clark traveled to New York and said he's ready to play when called on.

Although the two-day break figures to have done the wounded players some good, the team is still expected to recall goaltender Simeon Varlamov, forwards Andrew Gordon and Alexandre Giroux, and defenseman Bryan Helmer from Hershey -- just in case. It's unclear which, if any, will face Thomas Vanek (24 goals) and the Sabres, whose 5-0 victory on Nov. 1 led to a Boudreau-administered punishment of a practice the following morning.

Buffalo has won three in a row at Verizon Center, but the Capitals are an Eastern Conference-best 13-1-1 at home this season.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company