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Washington Capitals are eager for a challenge on visit to face Chicago Blackhawks

By Gene Wang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 14, 2010; D03

The morning after a perplexing loss to Tampa Bay, the Washington Capitals participated in a vigorous workout on Saturday 24 hours before a week-long trip commences in Chicago in what may be a preview of the Stanley Cup finals.

Capitals players know they will have to show considerably more concentration and vitality than in Friday night's 3-2 loss to the Lightning if they are to log a rare road win at United Center. Chicago has lost just seven times at home, tied for the third fewest in the league, and is tied with Washington for most home victories (26).

The Blackhawks also are in the mix for the Presidents' Trophy, awarded to the team with the most points at the end of the regular season. Apart from the prestige of collecting the hardware, the winner also is assured home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs. Chicago is behind only San Jose in the Western Conference and trails Washington by six points for most in the NHL after the Blackhawks lost at Philadelphia, 3-2, on Saturday.

"We need like a real good game to get us back into it here, a real tough opponent," said Capitals right wing Mike Knuble, who has 19 goals and five two-goal showings in his past 29 games. "Sometimes the best thing about being at home is getting on the road again, and so maybe we're looking forward to playing in a threatening environment."

Washington finished this most recent homestand with a 3-1-1 record that included a 5-4 victory over Tampa Bay on March 4 that began the stretch. That was the Capitals' seventh consecutive home win against the Lightning, which entered Friday's matchup having lost seven of eight.

The Capitals took the first lead of Friday's game on a goal by Tomas Fleischmann at 16 minutes 54 seconds of the first period, but the Lightning scored the next three to hand the Capitals their third loss in the Southeast Division and their first regulation loss at home in 16 games.

The lapse in performance by the Capitals came in their initial game after they became the first team to secure a division title this season, and the players didn't even have to rise from their couches to claim it.

Instead, an Atlanta Thrashers loss on Thursday night provided Washington its sixth overall division title. The Capitals also became the first to win three Southeast titles in a row, but they failed to hold the lead against a team that began the night with 33 fewer points than them and remains in a tussle simply to make the playoffs.

"It's funny because we think we're a good hockey club," Coach Bruce Boudreau said after practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. "But every time we lose, there's critics all over the world saying: 'We're not good enough defensively. We can't check, and how can that style of hockey win?' And it gets you mad, and you go out there, and you try your best to win. Like we didn't play good, and we didn't play smart [Friday] night, but you know, it's the first time since the Olympic break we lost in regulation."

The Capitals are 4-1-1 since the league resumed play after the Winter Games in Vancouver, yet head into Sunday's nationally televised game somewhat disheartened despite their foothold among the NHL's elite. Losing to an inferior opponent can have that effect.

The Blackhawks, on the other hand, present a completely different set of obstacles for the Capitals.

Unlike against the Lightning, a lack of motivation isn't among them. Chicago fancies itself a legitimate contender for the Stanley Cup and has won seven of 10 games.

Much like the Capitals, Chicago can attack from all flanks. Leading the way are right wing and U.S. Olympian Patrick Kane; defenseman Duncan Keith, who played for champion Canada in the Olympics; center Jonathan Toews, another star for Team Canada; and left wing Patrick Sharp.

The Blackhawks' starting goalie for much of this season has been Cristobal Huet, who spent part of the 2007-08 season with Washington and went 11-2-0 with a 1.63 goals-against average.

"We set the bar pretty high, and [Sunday] will be one of those games where we think, from what everybody tells us, we're playing the best team in the league," Boudreau said. "They say they got the best defensemen, the best forwards. They don't say they have the best goaltending, but it's going to be a great test. We think we'll get their best effort, and we'll at least be able to get to judge where we think we are by playing them."

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