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Capitals seek to iron out third-period troubles as five-game trip heads east

Defenseman Karl Alzner: "Our puzzle is maybe three-quarters of the way put together, and we're getting so close that we've got to just keep plugging away." (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
Defenseman Karl Alzner: "Our puzzle is maybe three-quarters of the way put together, and we're getting so close that we've got to just keep plugging away." (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 20, 2011; 12:12 AM

BUFFALO - The Washington Capitals have traded in the palm trees and mild temperatures of the past week for fresh snow in upstate New York. They're still two games away from wrapping up this current five-game trip, but now that they are facing Eastern Conference opponents once again, the contests take on a much greater meaning.

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Starting with back-to-back games against the surging Buffalo Sabres on Sunday and the rival Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday, the Capitals face conference foes in 18 of their 23 remaining games.

With a 6-3-1 record in its last 10 games, Buffalo (27-24-6) has catapulted itself into ninth place in the Eastern Conference - four points behind Carolina - and enters Sunday's contest just 10 points behind fifth-place Washington (30-19-10). The Sabres, however, have lost two straight at home and will be desperate to get back on track.

"The one good thing, great thing, is it puts us in control," Coach Bruce Boudreau said of playing Eastern Conference teams. "If we want to do well, it's up to us to do well. They're all four-point games instead of two-point games so to speak, so it should be a highly emotional last two months of the season. . . . We have to put a run together. This is the time you put the run together. We're looking forward to those games."

Washington just concluded a three-game road swing against teams from the Pacific Division, where five points separate first from fifth and all five teams are in a playoff position. The Capitals went 1-2-0 in those games, even though both coaches and players had believed they were playing better and with more adherence to the style they've been seeking.

The scoring chances have been a little more frequent and stars such as Alex Ovechkin are beginning to exude more confidence, but as has been the case all year for Washington, there still seems to be one period of play in which things go awry. In the last 11 days it's been the final period when the Capitals haven't kept their play at a consistent level.

The Capitals have lost four out of their last five games, and the deciding tally has come in the third period of each defeat. They've allowed eight goals in the third period in the losses during that stretch, and in three of those four games Washington entered the final 20 minutes with a tied score.

"It's a little bit off that we're doing that right now," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "I think maybe we're happy with the position that we are in going into the third period and we take the foot off just a little bit.

"I think it's tough to just say: 'Here's what we have to do and we'll start winning,' " Alzner added. "We need to have a run. We haven't had a real good run this year since maybe the beginning of the season. . . . Our puzzle is maybe three-quarters of the way put together, and we're getting so close that we've got to just keep plugging away."

Capitals note: Mike Green, who missed the past three games because of an inner-ear trauma, skated through an entire practice with the team Saturday.

Boudreau said he wasn't certain of the defenseman's status against the Sabres. "He had full practice today," Boudreau said. "So we'll see how he feels and whether it makes sense to put him in or not or to wait another day."


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