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Big week infuses confidence in Capitals

by Dan Rosen
PITTSBURGH -- Bruce Boudreau talked about it as a measuring-stick week for his Washington Capitals and nobody was arguing with him.

First they had to face the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday, and then they played back-to-back games separated by one travel day against the two teams that played in the last two Stanley Cup Finals -- Detroit at home on Tuesday and at Pittsburgh on Thursday.

Four points would have been acceptable. Five would have been great. Six? Well, one could only dream, right?

After Thursday's 6-3 win at Mellon Arena, it's reality.

The Caps beat the Flyers, Red Wings and Penguins to again take over as the top team in the Eastern Conference, and now you almost want to feel sorry for the Phoenix Coyotes. They have to come into Verizon Center on Saturday and try to knock off a team that has won five straight games, eight of its last nine and is 17-3-3 on its home ice.

"We've passed," Boudreau admitted after Thursday's decisive win. "We want to get better. We still have a really tough game this week against Phoenix. But, right now, I think the guys have met the challenge. I felt we played much better than we did against Detroit, even though (the Penguins) got 38 shots. I thought we were moving our legs, attacking the puck really well."

The Capitals have learned more about their team in this stretch of three games than probably at any point in this season.

Resiliency? Check.

They beat the Flyers, 5-3, Sunday despite being outshot, 33-22. They came back from a pair of one-goal deficits and cashed in with three straight goals, including one on the power play, one via a penalty shot and one shorthanded.

Then they won a game Tuesday that they had no business winning. Detroit outshot Washington, 46-23, but goaltender Jose Theodore stood on his head and the Caps struck twice within 46 seconds late in the third period to steal a 3-2 win.

On Thursday they erased an early 1-0 deficit and later got a power-play goal from Alex Ovechkin with 3:35 to play in the second period to even the score at 3-3. Tomas Fleischmann and Nicklas Backstrom scored early in the third and the Caps never looked back.

Their power play was 2-for-2 and their penalty kill was 4-for-4.

"I really get that sense here that they've learned some lessons from the last couple of years," Caps center Brendan Morrison said. "I think we've been able to rebound this year from when we've had some poor games and I think that's a sign of a good team."

Goaltending? Check.

Save for an early blunder Thursday, Theodore has been stellar in reclaiming the No. 1 spot. He's won five straight games, including four straight starts, and basically singlehandedly stole that game Tuesday against Detroit with a masterful 44-save effort.

Boudreau credits the Capitals' improved penalty kill -- they have killed off nine straight and 21 of 25 during their current five-game winning streak -- to Theodore's solid play.

"I thought the last two games against two star-studded teams we did a great job penalty killing," Boudreau said. "That comes with the goaltending."

Offense? Well, we already knew this one had a check next to it, but the Capitals' ability to roll four lines and get scoring from each is a big reason why they have won five straight, including the three measuring-stick games this week.

Nine players combined to score 14 goals against the Flyers, Red Wings and Penguins. Thursday night, everyone on the top line (Ovechkin, Mike Knuble and Backstrom) scored. So did Fleischmann, the second-line center, and third-line winger Eric Fehr.

Fourth-liners Matt Bradley and David Steckel scored against the Wings.

Oh, and their power play is a scorching 50 percent (6-for-12) over the past four games.

"It's pretty tough when teams want to shut us down right now," Boudreau said. "I think anybody can score on the team and I think that's the way they feel on a given night that a new hero can arise."

"It's pretty tough when teams want to shut us down right now. I think anybody can score on the team and I think that's the way they feel on a given night that a new hero can arise." -- Bruce Boudreau

The Caps might have known all of this before the Flyers came into D.C. for this past Sunday's game, but after these last three games there are no questions left to answer, at least for now.

Their confidence has never been higher, but there are still 32 games bridged by an Olympic break before the playoffs begin. That's when the Capitals want to peak because it's really Stanley Cup or bust this season.

These measuring-stick games, stepping-stone wins if you want to call them that, will be forgotten by then, but they definitely matter now.

"We're playing good teams and they've been tough games, but it's been a challenge for us to see where we are and how we're going to keep going," Backstrom said. "It's just the regular season, but it's good to see where we are right now."

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