Washington Capitals prepare for home stretch of NHL season

Tampa Bay's Steve Downie forges between Washington's Nicklas Backstrom, left, and Mike Knuble during the Caps' 3-1 win Saturday.
Tampa Bay's Steve Downie forges between Washington's Nicklas Backstrom, left, and Mike Knuble during the Caps' 3-1 win Saturday. (Mike Carlson/associated Press)
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By Gene Wang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 23, 2010

With their last extended road trip of the regular season completed, the Washington Capitals were back skating at their practice facility in Ballston on Monday for the first time in 10 days as they brace for what figures to be a rugged finishing stretch.

All but two of Washington's opponents over its final 10 games are jockeying for playoff position, among them Boston and Atlanta, each of which the Capitals play twice, and Calgary.

The Capitals also face nemesis Pittsburgh twice, including Wednesday at Verizon Center, and Ottawa, which is in fifth place in the East and has won twice in three games against Washington.

"You can say it's regular season, but I mean you look outside, look around you, and everybody is talking about playoff races," Capitals right wing Mike Knuble said. "It's warm outside. It feels like playoffs.

"You've got to build up to it. You can't wait until the [postseason begins] and just figure you're in the playoffs and start committing to making strong plays all over the ice, committing to the team game and playing our system well. It's got to start now, and it's great opponents. You can call them preseason playoff games, because that's what they are."

No games promise to have more of a playoff feel those between the Capitals and Penguins, the reigning Stanley Cup champions, who dispatched Washington in last season's Eastern Conference semifinals. There's also the subplot featuring Alex Ovechkin and Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby, vying for the Hart Trophy awarded to the league's most valuable player.

Ovechkin leads the league in points (97) and is tied with Crosby for first in goals (45), but Ovechkin has missed 10 games this season, and that does not include a game misconduct he received in the first period of a 4-3 comeback victory at Chicago on March 14. Ovechkin was suspended the following two games before coming back to score the decisive goal in a 3-1 victory over Tampa Bay on Saturday.

"I think nobody can wait for this game," said Ovechkin, who is bidding to become the only player other than Hall of Famers Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr to win the Hart Trophy three consecutive seasons. "There's going to be lots of fans here, lots of attention, and it's going to be a fun game to play."

The Capitals (48-14-10) play seven of their remaining games at Verizon Center, where they are a league-best 26-4-4 this season. The Capitals, with a league-high 106 points, also are the front-runner for the Presidents' Trophy, which is presented to the team with the best record in the regular season.

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