By Gene Wang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 28, 2010; 12:07 AM
While winning the Stanley Cup is at the top of the Washington Capitals' to-do list, the entire organization is keenly aware that to reach those uncharted heights, players first must target more modest objectives during the regular season. The most immediate during this latest stretch includes extending the club's robust opening kick against Southeast Division competition.
Next in line is Carolina, which at this early stage of the season is on the outer fringes of the Eastern Conference playoff race. The Capitals, meantime, continue to lead the NHL in points, and much of that is attributable to their dominance within the division.
The Capitals are 6-2 against the Southeast, and only one other team in the league has as many wins as Washington against division foes. Among the Capitals' past nine games, five have been against division opponents, including the past two. Washington's only loss to a Southeast team during that time was 5-0 to Atlanta on Nov. 19 in perhaps its worst performance of the season.
Since then, the Capitals have won two straight games within the division, including a 6-0 rout over surging Tampa Bay on Friday. The Lightning had won five consecutive games before playing the Capitals, who have outscored Southeast opponents 21-14 this month.
"The goal at the start of the season is first off to win your division," said forward Brooks Laich, whose 17 points are fourth on the team. "So obviously the division games are the most important, and after that you focus on the conference and the league in general. Our division has improved this year, and Carolina always plays us tight."
Washington last played the Hurricanes on Wednesday, winning on the road, 3-2. Both of the Capitals' games so far this season against Carolina have come away from Verizon Center, where the teams will meet Sunday evening. Washington blanked Carolina, 3-0, behind goalie Michal Neuvirth's first NHL shutout when they first played on Oct. 27.
Following Sunday's game against Carolina, the Capitals draw just three more division opponents through the end of the year after six this month, including the final three consecutively.
"It's so important, our divisional games," Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "I mean you look at our division right now. It's not the weak sister everybody used to think it is. . . . Our division, I think, is really tough, so there's a big importance anytime we play somebody in our division."Poti sits out practice
The Capitals conducted a brief practice on Saturday afternoon at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, and among the notable absences was defenseman Tom Poti, who has been in and out of the lineup with a lower-body injury. Boudreau indicated the move to hold him out was precautionary.
Poti played one of his most complete games of the season against Tampa Bay, scoring the final goal, his second of the season, and logging the second-most ice time on the team with 24 minutes 40 seconds. He also helped the Capitals kill off a five-on-three penalty by blocking a shot even after he was cross-checked to the ice.
"We talk to him, and we make sure he does his off-ice stuff to keep his legs strong, and it's all maintenance with him," Boudreau said of Poti. "If it was a 7 o'clock game [Sunday night], he would have taken today off and practiced tomorrow morning, but it's a 5 o'clock game after a game, and we didn't want to push it."
There was no such issue with defenseman Mike Green, who missed Friday night's game with an undisclosed ailment but participated fully in practice and said he would be in the lineup against the Hurricanes. Green missed three games earlier this season with what was believed to be a hurt shoulder.
With Green ready to come back, the Capitals assigned Brian Fahey to Hershey. Fahey, 29, was in the locker room following practice gathering his belongings and saying goodbye for now to his teammates after collecting the first point of his NHL career on Friday. He has played in five games for the Capitals this season.