Capitals still trying to master division

Defenseman Dustin Byfuglien (33) and the Thrashers have been a stronger-than-expected opponent for Alex Ovechkin's Capitals this season.
Defenseman Dustin Byfuglien (33) and the Thrashers have been a stronger-than-expected opponent for Alex Ovechkin's Capitals this season. (Toni L. Sandys)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Washington Capitals saw the Atlanta Thrashers on their schedule last season, and it was ho-hum. Another division opponent wasn't exactly menacing to the reigning Southeast champions, who carved through those teams with regularity, often by resounding margins.

These days, the Thrashers, much like the rest of the upgraded Southeast Division, are anything but pushovers, as was painfully obvious to Washington in five games against them. The Capitals play Atlanta for the sixth and final time of the regular season on Wednesday, and the best Washington can finish head-to-head is .500.

The Capitals have lost the past two to Atlanta and were outscored in those games 8-1, including 5-0 on Nov. 19 at Philips Arena, where Washington is 0-2 this season. Now the significance of one game becomes that much more amplified after the Capitals' 2-1 shootout loss to the New York Rangers on Tuesday not only ended Washington's two-game winning streak but also has the team in jeopardy of a third loss in five games heading into the all-star break.

"It's the last time we play these guys," Capitals forward Mike Knuble said. "We've played them a lot in this first half of the season. A team below us, we've got to beat them and make sure that they know if we face them in the playoffs that it's going to be a hard task."

Washington is eight points ahead of Atlanta, which currently occupies the eighth and final playoff slot in the Eastern Conference. The Thrashers have lost three consecutive games, but two of them have been in shootouts, and they are doing all they can to stave off division foe Carolina, which is one point in back of them for that precarious final playoff spot.

The Capitals, meanwhile, are having a much tougher time in the Southeast Division after mistreating those opponents in recent seasons. Washington went 19-3-2 against the division in 2009-10, including a six-game sweep of Atlanta, and is just 9-5-2 through 50 games this season.

The goal differential against the Thrashers this season has been just as stark. In those six wins, Washington had 29 goals, and only once did it fail to score at least four times. This season, the Capitals have 13 goals in five games against Atlanta, and only twice have they scored four goals or more.

"They've played us real tough," Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "They've dominated almost every game we've played, so it's going to be an interesting challenge for us, and it's crazy because Atlanta has done that to us, yet Tampa has beaten them 10 times in a row, and then Atlanta has turned around and beaten Florida every time they've played them, so who can figure this game out?"

Washington has been taking a crack at that while implementing considerably more attention to defense. The intent is to arm the team with a more physical disposition down the stretch that often defines Stanley Cup champions, or at the very least, a club that can foray deep into the postseason.

It's been paying off statistically, with the Capitals ranked seventh in the league in goals allowed per game this season (2.48). Washington finished 16th in that category last season, yielding 2.77 goals per game.

The Capitals are seven points off their pace at this time last year, and despite an ongoing modification in on-ice philosophy, a spate of injuries and an eight-game losing streak that was the lengthiest of Boudreau's tenure, they trail Philadelphia by six points for first in the Eastern Conference.

Among the most notable of those ailing players has been Alexander Semin, who skated on Tuesday morning during practice. Semin has not played since Jan. 8 and has not scored since Nov. 28 yet remains second on the team in goals (18), one behind Alex Ovechkin. The status of the left wing for the Thrashers game remains unclear, as does that of forward Matt Bradley, who has missed 14 games since breaking his finger on Dec. 21.

"There's a bunch of aspects that go into [Wednesday] I think," Capitals forward Matt Hendricks said. "First off, being two points. As it is we want to get those two points. We feel we need them, and we're going to go down and try to take them from Atlanta. Then second, them being a divisional opponent, which is key. They've beaten us the last few times, and the third point is just we're going into the break. We want to feel good about ourselves going into four days off."

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