By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 1, 2011; 12:16 AM
The Washington Capitals embark on the final 31 games of the 2010-11 regular season in a decidedly different position than they've been the past two years. They trail in the Southeast Division standings entering the month of February for the first time since 2008, Coach Bruce Boudreau's first season, which culminated with a furious rally to capture the division title and reach the playoffs.
While the pieces are extremely familiar, these Capitals are not holding a 20-point edge on the rest of the Southeast through 51 games like they did last season or the 13-point cushion they had the year before. Facing improved competition in the division, Washington enters Tuesday's game against the Montreal Canadiens still trying to find a way to put all aspects of its game together, but following their first practice after the all-star break Monday, players said a rockier path to the playoffs may not be such a bad thing.
"Last year we didn't have any adversity throughout the whole year. I don't know if that's good or not, but obviously that didn't work out for us in the playoffs," Matt Bradley said. "Maybe the fact that we've been through a couple ups and downs might help us in the end. Hopefully we learn how to play in those tough situations."
Washington's 63 points puts it precisely in the middle of the Eastern Conference standings, eight behind the Philadelphia Flyers in first and seven ahead of the Carolina Hurricanes in ninth. The Capitals won't have an easy path in the final weeks and months of the season either, with 18 of 31 contests on the road - where they are 11-10-3 - and 15 against teams currently in playoff position.
"These last 31 games we just want to put it all together," Boyd Gordon said. "The division's been better this year. It's a tighter race and maybe we'll be hungrier. It shouldn't matter that way, but we're definitely fighting every night. With a 20-point lead, sometimes you start to take shortcuts, and we can't afford to do that this year."
That will mean plenty of games in hostile environments with something on the line for both teams - either a perfect scenario to round into playoff form or a difficult set of circumstances in which to find answers to lingering questions.
"We're in a battle," Boudreau said. "We know it, and we'll see how it works out. We're doing some things an awful lot better than last year, other things not as well. Now we've got to equalize it out in the last 31 games and hope it works out; when you get to the playoffs who knows what's going to happen."
The Capitals own the eighth-best record in the NHL and have demonstrated in improvements in defensive play and penalty-killing: Washington is seventh in the league allowing 2.45 goals against per game and owns the second-best success rate at killing penalties at 86 percent.
There are several questions that remain for Washington to answer before the close of the regular season, though, including: Can Semyon Varlamov or Michal Neuvirth stay healthy enough to emerge as a No. 1 goaltender? Will the Capitals settle on a second-line center from within the organization or choose to make a deal before the Feb. 28 trade deadline? Can Alex Ovechkin make his presence felt on a nightly basis even if he's on pace for a career low in points?
Perhaps the broadest concern is whether Washington can bring its offense back to life. After two seasons in which the Capitals were among the league leaders in goals scored, Washington has been held to two or fewer in 23 contests this season, and the former NHL-best power play has dried up, going 9 for 88 in the past 27 games.
"I don't think our whole game has been there the whole year," Jason Chimera said. "Early we played really well offensively, in the second half I think we've played better defensively than this team has ever played. I think we've just got to put the goals together - the power play and the goal scoring is the biggest thing now - but we've got to keep our defensive play up."
Capitals note: Boudreau said it's possible Alexander Semin (groin) could play against the Canadiens but that it's up to the winger to say he is ready. Tom Poti (lower body) and Eric Fehr (shoulder) will miss at least one and two more weeks, respectively. . . . Brooks Laich missed practice because his return flight to Washington was delayed. . . . Center Mathieu Perreault was recalled from Hershey, and Tyler Sloan also returned to Washington following a conditioning stint with the Bears.