East's Top Teams Duke It Out

Capitals Strive To Creep Closer To Host Bruins

Boston's Byron Bitz fights with Donald Brashear during the Capitals' overtime loss Jan. 27. The Caps are 2-0-1 in the series this season.
Boston's Byron Bitz fights with Donald Brashear during the Capitals' overtime loss Jan. 27. The Caps are 2-0-1 in the series this season. (By Elise Amendola -- Associated Paress)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 28, 2009; Page E12

Drills were executed with more precision. The laughter and clowning around that's common on days between games was less prevalent. Smiles were fewer and farther between.

Washington Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau said it's easy for him to know when his players are focused, and yesterday's practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, he said, was one of those times.

The Capitals have 20 games in which to catch -- and pass -- the Boston Bruins for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. But none of those games will be more important than this afternoon's meeting at TD Banknorth Garden, the rivals' fourth and final contest of the regular season. A regulation victory pulls Washington within seven points; a defeat grows Boston's lead to double digits.

"After tomorrow you have [19] games left," Boudreau said. "If you're 11 [points] back, just do that math for what you would have to do to catch them. It's not that easy a task."

Forward Brooks Laich added: "We know that tomorrow they are going to play their best hockey game, the absolute best they've been all season. Because if they win tomorrow, they pretty much have number one sewn up. They will be a very tough to team to catch."

The Capitals have posted a 2-0-1 record against the Bruins this season and because the teams are evenly matched when skating at even strength, the games have been tight and special teams played a big role in the outcome of each. Washington's third-ranked power play has connected on 17 of its past 51 opportunities (33.3 percent), including a 3-for-8 performance Thursday. But staying out of the penalty box against Boston -- and keeping the Bruins' fifth-ranked power play off the ice -- will be just as important.

"We have to limit our minors against them, that's the biggest thing," forward Boyd Gordon said, referring to the Capitals' penalty woes (they've been assessed 23 minor infractions the past three games). "We have to keep it to three or four, and when we do have to kill off a penalty, we have to bear down and get it done."

In the teams' first meeting, on Dec. 10 at Verizon Center, the Capitals limited themselves to three penalties, killed off each of them, scored an empty-net goal and eked out a 3-1 win. In the Jan. 17 meeting, also in the District, each club struck once on the power play and the Capitals escaped with a 2-1 win. Ten days later, the Capitals went 0 for 6 while the Bruins struck twice on the power play, including in overtime, to claim a 3-2 win in Boston.

José Theodore is expected to return to the net for Washington after rookie goaltender Michal Neuvirth's 21-save performance in Thursday's 4-3 win over Atlanta. Tim Thomas, meantime, is expected to start for the Bruins, who have rebounded from a 1-4-2 slump with wins over Florida and Anaheim by a combined score of 12-1. Thomas, a two-time all-star, is 9-2-1 against Washington all-time, leads the NHL in save percentage (.934) and goals against average (2.01), and has been tormenting Boudreau since the two were in the ECHL.

"I remember facing him in Birmingham and we outshot them 55-18 and we lost 3-2," said Boudreau, who at the time was coaching Mississippi. "He's been a thorn in my side ever since I started coaching. You just hope he has an off night. I don't know if there's anyone who is more competitive in the net. He'll do anything to stop the puck."

The Capitals could, however, catch a break if the Bruins are without savvy veteran center Marc Savard and menacing winger Milan Lucic, neither of whom practiced yesterday. Boudreau recently said Savard, who has two goals in the three previous matchups, is the best center the Capitals have faced this season. Lucic, meantime, has a goal and nine hits in two games (he missed the second meeting with a shoulder injury).

Even if the Capitals fail to reel in the Bruins, getting a third win could be of some benefit should the teams meet in the playoffs. It would also mark only the second time in the series history that the Capitals beat the Bruins three times (they went 3-0-0 against Boston in 1982-83).

"I know for myself, when you play a team in the playoffs, and you look back at [the regular season] and see you only got a point out of them and had a tough time playing against them, that gives an edge for that team," Theodore said.

Laich agreed, saying: "If we win [today], now we're 3-0-1 against them for the season. "Maybe they finish ahead of us, maybe they don't.

"But now they're wondering, you know, 'We can't beat those guys.' "

Capitals Notes: Washington's 68 first-period goals through Thursday's games were tops in the league. . . . The Bruins are 21-3-3 in their last 27 home games.

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