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Boudreau's dilemma: How hard to push Capitals

by Dan Rosen
WASHINGTON  -- It's become a nightly challenge for Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau to fall asleep with a multitude of "what-ifs" and all kinds of "should I or shouldn't I?" scenarios running through his mind.

His team could potentially rack up 126 points this season, something Boudreau never hesitates to point out. The Caps already have tied the franchise record for points in a season and can clinch the top seed in the Eastern Conference Thursday -- before any other team in the League clinches a playoff berth.

Life is good, but Boudreau wonders if he's handling the situation the right way.

Should he be riding his guys now or letting them enjoy some pressure-free hockey before it all gets ratcheted up in the middle of April? Should he rest some of his stars so they're fresh when the playoffs come around? Or should he just leave well enough alone?

"I don't know," Boudreau answered after Wednesday's 4-3 shootout win over the Penguins. "I wrestle with this all the time."

Boudreau is a sports fan, so he was able to reference the Indianapolis Colts resting some of their regulars, including star quarterback Peyton Manning, before the NFL playoffs began a couple months ago. The Colts wound up in the Super Bowl -- though they lost to New Orleans.

But he also knows his own team and how it handled the final stretch of games last season. The Capitals had the Southeast Division wrapped up -- but Boudreau wasn't thrilled with their finish, and they got blitzed 7-4 in Florida in the final game of the regular season. They then lost their first two playoff games to the New York Rangers.

"I have seen teams that rested their guys and then they stink in the first game of the playoffs," Boudreau said. "Last year, we didn't put emphasis on the end of the season, we lost games at home and then we lost the first two games (in the playoffs) until we got into a playoff mode. I bounce it both ways all the time. It keeps me up at night."

It could just be that Boudreau is over-thinking this because it seems no matter what buttons he pushes, the Capitals always seem to respond in a positive fashion.

This team is both relentless and resilient. They showed both qualities yet again Wednesday night.

Once the Capitals sensed the moment, they busted out for two goals in a span of 1:56 to turn a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 lead nearly halfway through the third period. They didn't seem fazed by Jordan Staal's tying goal with 3:06 left in regulation, nor were they willing to give up after Kris Letang and Sidney Crosby put the Penguins up 2-0 in the shootout.

"They were good plays, but when you're down 2-0 in a shootout usually it doesn't look good," Jose Theodore said. "But we have so much skill that we didn't panic."

Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin scored in the second and third rounds and Theodore came up with saves on Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz in the third and fourth rounds. Mike Knuble then won it with his first-ever shootout goal.

"I think this is a strong sign we have in our team, we never give up and that's something good," Nicklas Backstrom said. "Even if they score at the end there and then two in a shootout we know we can still win it. That's a big thing for us."

It's almost as if the Capitals are oblivious to the situation. Or perhaps it's just that they're so supremely confident this season -- they have reason to be -- that they never, ever think they're out of a game.

Why would they?

They have a League-best eight wins (8-9-3) when trailing after the second period and they are 20-14-7 in games that they have trailed at one point or another.

"We just keep going, keep playing hockey," Ovechkin said. "It doesn't matter what happens, we just want to win. I don't think we played our best game (Wednesday). I don't think our best players, our first two lines played great. We scored two goals, but still it wasn't our game."

Yes, the Capitals won again when trailing after two periods -- but Boudreau still went to bed wondering if he's doing right by his team.

He thinks ahead to the playoffs and worries about the potential of failure.

"I'm sure there are a lot of coaches in San Jose that haven't felt right after they've lost in the first round," Boudreau said. "It's a lot of pressure having the best regular season because now you have to perform in the playoffs. It's not going to be easy so nothing is taken for granted, ever."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

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