Capitals show signs of stability on five-game road trip

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 23, 2011; 12:25 AM

The Washington Capitals' five-game, eight-day trip was far from flawless. But what emerged was a steadiness in play, individually and collectively, that has often been lacking this season. By finishing 3-2-0 during that stretch and going 5-4-0 in its last nine contests, Washington trails the Southeast Division-leading Tampa Bay Lightning by one point.

"I knew this was a very important part of our schedule and I think it was a success," Coach Bruce Boudreau said following the Capitals' 1-0 victory Monday night against the rival Pittsburgh Penguins. "I think our better players have been more consistent, our power play has scored in three straight games now, which is a good sign, and we're getting healthy."

How long Washington can maintain that even-keeled approach remains to be seen, however, as the team has not strung together a winning streak of more than three games since late November. Whether General Manager George McPhee will make a move and acquire a player to help the Capitals get over that hump is uncertain.

With less than a week remaining before the NHL's trading deadline on Monday at 3 p.m., Washington is the only team among the top five in the Eastern Conference standings that has not made a trade this month. Pittsburgh picked up James Neal and Matt Niskanen on Monday, Boston acquired Tomas Kaberle and Rich Peverley, among others, Philadelphia increased its depth with Kris Versteeg and Tampa Bay added veteran Eric Brewer to its blue line, all in the last two weeks.

McPhee has always preferred to keep his trade-deadline plans close to the vest, but several league sources said the Capitals are actively pursing options for a two-way center to help anchor the second line. Adding defensive depth, given injury concerns to Tom Poti and Mike Green, or perhaps another goal-scorer to jumpstart the dormant offense are possibilities as well.

While McPhee weighs his options, the current roster appears to be growing into its defensive mind-set. The Capitals would, of course, like to see a little more offensive production to ease the burden placed on the goaltender or defense in any given contest, but confidence in their defensive abilities continues to rise. In the last 14 games, Washington has given up more than three goals only twice and more than two only five times.

"When we get that one goal, that one goal lead, we're confident in our ability to keep that lead and not worry about getting scored on as much," forward Matt Bradley said. "Obviously, we're still trying to score goals. We're not getting one and thinking: 'Okay, we're all set. Let's play defense.' We're trying to get goals; we're just not able to as much as we'd like. The bright side is, for the most part we've been able to keep other teams at bay, which is what we've wanted."

To go along with the defense, captain Alex Ovechkin, who is on pace for a career-low 32 goals and 51 assists, has started to display his signature energy and swagger over the last few weeks. The left wing played a key role in the Capitals' game-winning goals in the 1-0 win in Pittsburgh and 2-1 victory in Buffalo and has six points in his last four games.

Earlier on the trip, Boudreau suggested that "old Ovi," who initiates physical contact and sets a frenetic pace to the Capitals' game any time he is on the ice, may be back. Ovechkin's booming slap shot that tallied the decisive goal against the Penguins offered more evidence.

"That's what he does, and that's what he wasn't doing in the first 45-50 games," Boudreau said. "He wasn't getting his shot off and it didn't seem to have the mustard - I didn't even see it in the replay at all. He's been playing like that for the last two weeks and [is] being a real leader."

Capitals note: According to a Swedish report, center Nicklas Backstrom's thumb was fractured Monday night in Washington's 1-0 win over the Penguins when he was slashed by Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang. The team said Backstrom is listed as day-to-day but declined to comment on the specific nature of the injury.

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