Capitals look to 'bury' Southeast Division rivals on three-game trip

Alex Ovechkin skates toward his 27th goal this season in Thursday's win over Ottawa, which gave the Capitals a 14-point division lead.
Alex Ovechkin skates toward his 27th goal this season in Thursday's win over Ottawa, which gave the Capitals a 14-point division lead. (John Mcdonnell/the Washington Post)
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By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 9, 2010

Though more than three months remain in the NHL regular season, the Washington Capitals have a chance over the next five days to turn a comfortable lead in the Southeast Division into a virtually insurmountable one.

Alex Ovechkin and his teammates boarded the team's charter flight Friday afternoon at Dulles Airport with a league-best 8-1-0 record in their own division, a 14-point lead over their closest challenger, and an itinerary that includes stops in Atlanta, Tampa and Sunrise, Fla. -- against the three teams directly behind them in the standings.

"These are four-point games," defenseman Tom Poti said after an optional practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. "We want to try to bury these teams and finish them off, so they're not putting together a charge late in the season. We want to let them know that there's a very [steep] hill to climb and that it's going to be tough to beat us."

Capturing the division ensures a team of home-ice advantage in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

"Every division game is important because it gives us breathing room. We want to make sure we keep that lead," defenseman Brian Pothier said. "We don't want to put ourselves in a position where we give teams hope and make it questionable toward the end of the year."

At this point a year ago, the Capitals had a 10-point lead on Carolina. They went on to claim their second consecutive division title by 11 points, a margin padded during a three-game winning streak in mid-February that included victories on consecutive nights over the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers.

Washington is hoping for similar success over this southern swing. Based on statistics and recent history, there's plenty of reason for the Capitals to feel confident about their chances in a weak division in which they're the only team in the playoff picture. Consider:

-- The trip begins against the slumping Atlanta Thrashers, who have lost nine of their past 10 games (1-6-3) amid headlines focusing on the team's tenuous contract talks with star winger and captain Ilya Kovalchuk. Washington has won a series-best four straight and taken eight of the teams' past 10 meetings. Ovechkin, meantime, has 25 goals and 27 assists in 32 career games against the Thrashers.

-- The second leg begins Sunday with a day off in Tampa. After a full-team practice the following afternoon, the Capitals will face the Lightning, a team they've beaten 12 straight times, Tuesday night at St. Pete Times Forum. It's Washington's longest winning streak against any opponent.

-- The next night, the Capitals will aim to beat Florida for the fourth time in four meetings this season. The Panthers have lost five of their past six games and are just 7-8-5 at home.

The pivotal trip also seems to be coming at the right time. After dropping three games in regulation, the Capitals rebounded this week at Verizon Center with thorough wins over Montreal and Ottawa.

Seven players combined to score nine goals to pace the league's best offense. Strong defensive efforts limited the opponents to 26 and 28 shots, respectively. And, with Pothier's return to the lineup Thursday, the Capitals have no players on the injury list in the game notes for the first time this season. (Goaltender Semyon Varlamov is out because of knee and groin muscle injuries, but is technically assigned to the minor league Hershey Bears at the moment.)

"We want them to feel there is no hope and let them know we're the top dog," Poti said of the Thrashers, Lightning and Panthers.

"And you do that by beating the teams below you in the standings. We have 99 percent of our lineup from the start of the season, so there's no excuses."

Capitals notes: Varlamov could begin skating this weekend, Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "Hopefully the week after that he'll be ready to play," the coach added. . . .

Poti has recorded assists in four straight games, his longest point streak since 2002-03. . . .

Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom did not participate in Friday's practice. Brooks Laich came out five minutes before any of his teammates and stayed 15 minutes longer than anyone else Friday, firing pucks into an empty net. Laich has two goals in his past 22 games.

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