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Fast start has Caps in cat-bird's seat in Southeast

by Dan Rosen

"If we stay on an even keel we won't have to burn ourselves out to get there. That will give us a huge advantage in the playoffs."
-- Mike Green

Bruce Boudreau brushed off the notion that his Washington Capitals were a tired bunch entering Game 7 of last season's Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against Philadelphia. He swatted it down as if it were the silliest thing he had heard since that early spring night in D.C.

"We lost the seventh game in overtime on a power play, and in the third period we outshot them, 16-5," Boudreau said with a stare. "We were not gassed. We were unlucky."

Now, midway through the 2008-09 season, the young Capitals are experienced, and no matter what spin Boudreau or anyone else puts on the ouster from last season's playoffs, this much is true:

Washington learned the most obvious lesson during its daring and improbable run to the 2008 postseason. Winning in the fall and winter should keep the gray hair away come spring time.

"Last year was the funnest year for everybody. We knew if we lose, we're done; so we fight every game and play hard every night, every shift," Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin said. "We got results and went to the playoffs and got the experience to help us this year. Now, we do know if you win in the beginning of the year it's going to be better at the end of the year."

Last season, the Capitals, who were the worst team in the League when Boudreau took over in late November, had to go on a miracle run just to make the playoffs as the Southeast Division champs. This season, Washington has been one of the League's most consistent teams since the first puck dropped Oct. 10.

Consider it a lesson learned.

They won five of nine games in October and got better in November, gaining 18 of a possible 30 points. December was by far their best month to date as they went 11-3 and carried a four-game winning streak into 2009.

The Caps lengthened that streak to seven games by Jan. 6 to hit the 41-game mark with 27 wins and 57 points, good for first in the Southeast Division by 10 points and second in the Eastern Conference behind the Boston Bruins.

At their halfway point, the Capitals also had a League-best 18-1-1 home record, including a 3-1 win against those barnstorming Bruins on Dec. 10.

Amazingly, Washington's 27-11-3 record in the first half of this season is identical to the ledger they posted in the second half of last season, when they had to win 11 of their last 12 games just to get to the playoffs.

"I don't think they want to go through that again," Boudreau said. "Even though when you go through it the one time it's as exciting a time as you're going to have unless you're winning the whole thing, but the law of averages says if you keep waiting for that to happen it usually won't."

What's remarkable about this season's consistency is the Caps are doing it with an inconsistent lineup. For the most part, injuries have killed Boudreau's chances of putting together his best lineup on a game-to-game basis.

At the midway point, the Capitals had lost 211 man-games to injury and had played 34 players. A dozen players have combined for 19 recalls from Hershey of the American Hockey League. Defenseman Tyler Sloan was basically on a yo-yo from Hershey to the nation's capital having been called up and sent down three times each.

Only Nicklas Backstrom, Matt Bradley, Milan Jurcina and Brooks Laich had played in all 41 games. Sergei Fedorov was limited to 15 games. Alexander Semin played in only 23, captain Chris Clark only 26 and Mike Green had missed 13 games with a shoulder injury.

Ovechkin missed back-to-back games for the first time in his four-year career when he returned home to Russia to be with his ailing grandfather in late October. Even the team's Web site producer, Brett Leonhardt, had to dress for a game as a backup goalie.

Yet, the Capitals still got it done in the first half.

"We have great character in this room," Ovechkin said. "We have the same group of guys as last year, so everybody knows how we can play. It's an important thing."

If the Caps manage to win another 27 games in the second half, they will break the franchise records for wins (50) and points (107). If they win 11 of their last 12 again, they will only be padding their lead in the Southeast Division and, perhaps, doing enough to claim the top spot in the Eastern Conference, as well.

What a difference experience makes.

"If we stay on an even keel we won't have to burn ourselves out to get there," Green told "That will give us a huge advantage in the playoffs."

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