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Capitals head to Florida with first place in mind

By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 6, 2011; 12:14 AM

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. - For the first time since the Washington Capitals added three new players before the NHL trade deadline, Coach Bruce Boudreau had the opportunity to put the team through a lengthy practice, in excess of an hour, in which they worked on breakouts and the power play, among other drills.

Boudreau knows the importance of the upcoming set of back-to-back contests against familiar foes Florida and Tampa Bay, where the Capitals have a chance to gain the top spot in the Southeast Division for the first time since December. The games also may show whether Washington is truly beginning to develop consistency late in this roller coaster of a season.

"It's time for us to show that we will be ready for the playoffs," Capitals winger Alex Ovechkin said. "This is a huge road trip for us. Right now, our team, we feel good about ourselves after the last three games that we've won, and we want to make sure we can continue that. [Sunday against the Panthers] will be a test, they're a little bit struggling and we have to show we can use that to help us."

Washington enters the Sunday-Monday stretch with 80 points and in fifth place in the Eastern Conference. The Lightning, which fell to Montreal on Saturday night, has a one-point edge on first place in the Southeast.

Before Washington's sixth and final meeting of the regular season against Tampa Bay on Monday comes a game against the still-rebuilding Panthers, whom Boudreau insists the Capitals cannot ignore if they truly want to regain control of the division.

The Panthers have lost eight of 10 games. They shipped out a handful of NHL regulars at the trade deadline, including a trio of experienced defensemen in Dennis Wideman (to the Capitals), Bryan McCabe (New York Rangers) and Bryan Allen (Carolina Hurricanes). Boudreau is well versed on the potential and work ethic of a team with young players and call-ups, however.

"Even though they've lost the last couple games they're outplaying and outshooting everybody. They're just not having a lot of luck around the net," Boudreau said of Florida. "Every time you get young guys in, they play so much harder. It seems this is their playoffs, this is their opportunity to shine and they overachieve for the early part. So I'm going to assume that they're going to be the hardest-working team that we've faced in a while."

The Capitals, meantime, feel they are getting closer to finding the right chemistry with 17 games remaining in the regular season. The addition of Jason Arnott, Wideman and Marco Sturm will require ongoing adjustments, but the team enters this back-to-back stretch winners in six of its past eight and only six points behind Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia, which has lost three straight.

One element of their game that the players are eager to get another look at is the power play. Washington only benefited from one man-advantage against St. Louis in a 3-2 win on Thursday, but that lone power play generated numerous scoring chances that wound up being tipped just wide of the net. Whether it's the influx of new players on the power play, getting back to the basics of creating traffic and taking as many shots as possible or something else, there is a growing sense that the power play, like the Capitals in general, may be jelling.

"This is the home stretch," defenseman John Carlson said. "We're starting to see what we want to in terms of our play and two points [Sunday] night and two more on Monday would really put us in a good position, and we really have to be focused. Even with all of the fun stuff going on with the dads here [on their annual trip], you've just got to stay zeroed in on what's going on right now."

Capitals notes: Mike Green has joined the team on the trip but is not expected to play this weekend, Boudreau said. Green has missed nine of the past 11 games since he was struck in the head by a puck on Feb. 6 against Pittsburgh and three straight since suffering another blow to the head on Feb. 25 against the New York Rangers. . . .

Defenseman Tom Poti (groin) skated with the team but did not stay out for the entire practice. Eric Fehr (shoulder) was able to make it through the whole session.

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