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Caps' play reminiscent of last season's struggles

by Corey Masisak
WASHINGTON -- A season ago, the Washington Capitals raced to an insurmountable lead in the Southeast Division only to scuffle their way through the final weeks of the season, playing down to their competition and looking like a team waiting for the playoffs to begin.

After a slow start against the New York Rangers nearly knocked the Capitals out in the first round of the postseason and the corresponding fatigue of back-to-back seven-game series ended their run in the conference semifinals against Pittsburgh, Capitals players have said on several occasions they learned their lesson from last season and this stretch run would be different.

Well, the Capitals lost Tuesday to the Ottawa Senators. It was Washington's sixth loss in the past 11 contests and ninth in the 17 since a 14-game winning streak catapulted the Capitals to the top of the NHL standings.

Coach Bruce Boudreau does not believe the Capitals of 2009-10 are in the process of repeating the sins of the 2008-09 club.

"The difference between last year and this year is last year we were playing teams that were out of the playoffs, so our level of play came down," Boudreau said. "I think the teams we're playing now are fighting for something. That was a hard-fought game. That wasn't a go-through-the-motions type game, (or) 'Let's get the season over with.' You had two teams wanting it. So I don't think our level of play will be dropping like last year."

Last season the Capitals went 10-6-3 from March 1 to the end of the regular season, and Boudreau is right about the inferior competition -- only five of those 19 games were against teams that made the playoffs, and the Capitals won two of them.

The problem is their strength of schedule this season in the 17 games since the long winning streak isn't that much better. Only six of the contests have been against teams that would be in the postseason if it started today. Granted, a team like Calgary (the Flames defeated the Capitals on Sunday) is desperate to stay in the postseason hunt, but Washington faced teams just on the outside looking in last season, as well.

The concern here isn't about wins and losses, anyway. Washington has secured first place in the Eastern Conference and is nearing the first Presidents' Trophy in team history. It is about how the team is playing with the postseason approaching.

Since a 2-0 victory March 6 against the Rangers, the Capitals have won only twice in regulation -- and those victories were against potential lottery teams in Tampa Bay and Florida. While the Capitals did rally against the Senators and forge a point before losing late in the overtime, this was the type of effort that will not bring success in the postseason.

Washington came out flat and surrendered an early lead. There was what Boudreau deemed "iffy" goaltending. There were defensive breakdowns into the second period that would have led to a rout save for goaltender Jose Theodore making a few spectacular stops.

There were three offensive-zone penalties, and Ottawa's power play was successful three times in four opportunities.

The Capitals aren't alone among elite teams trying to navigate through a funk. Chicago has lost three in a row and seven of 10. San Jose and Pittsburgh were franchises mired by poor play as recently as a week ago.

There are six more games in this regular season for Washington. The Capitals do not need to win all six, and they don't need to treat them like postseason contests. But an improvement of some kind compared to the past three games (all losses) probably would ease concerns in the nation's capitol.

"Maybe we're not ready for the first period, but we have to be because I remember last year in the playoffs," Nicklas Backstrom said. "We weren't ready the first two games. We have to get ready now, maybe play a good 60 minutes. We haven't played a good 60 minutes for a while."

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