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Top-seed Capitals seek improvement to close season

Washington wants to play better after clinching Eastern Conference

by Chris Stevenson / Correspondent

OTTAWA -- With the top seed in the Eastern Conference for the Stanley Cup Playoffs locked up, the Washington Capitals will now turn to locking down their play over the last 10 games of the regular season.

Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin took a moment to appreciate earning the top seed in the East on Tuesday but quickly pointed out the Metropolitan Division leaders still have work to do.

"It's huge. I think we deserve it, how we [played] all year, to clinch it," he said after a 4-2 win against the Ottawa Senators at Canadian Tire Centre. "Right now, 10 games left, I think we have to play more simple and be ready for the playoffs."

It was a common theme in the Capitals dressing room after the game. Washington (52-15-5) is 19-8-2 since Jan. 14 after starting 33-7-3.

"We've got 10 really important games, I think," Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said. "We haven't played our best hockey since after Christmas, I think. We've got some areas we have to get better on and make sure we play a full 60-minute game, I think. That's something we haven't been doing for a while. We've got to keep working."

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Goaltender Braden Holtby was critical of the Capitals' play lately and said he recognizes time is short to get back to the level they were at earlier this season.

"It's one of those things where we're not in a playoff push, but with 10 games left we're not playing the way we want to play," said Holtby, who with 44 wins is four short of the NHL single-season record held by Martin Brodeur.

"It's almost a blessing in disguise that we can ramp it up. Now we have something to play for. We want to make sure we're getting to our top level coming into Game 1 of the playoffs. It's a luxury that we have 10 games to do it. Now it's our job to use them effectively, and that's our goal as a collective group."

Capitals coach Barry Trotz said it has been difficult for them to match the intensity of some of their opponents lately because of the cushion Washington created with their outstanding start.

"We know we haven't played as well as we needed to. We've got some work to do, there's no question," Trotz said. "We haven't played a real meaningful game for a while here. I think the biggest thing is being able to sustain things. We can do things at a very high level, but sustaining it, you need that urgency, and we haven't had those games, elimination games, those type of things yet.

"The blessing of where we are is that we've got room and we can try things. The curse of it is where we are and that's what we're battling a little bit."

Trotz said it is up to the Capitals players to improve their game.

"From our standpoint it's hard to coach because you can't create any urgency," he said. "It's got to come from the group now. The group's got to say, 'OK, it's up to us. The coaches have been harping on certain things, we need to do it.' I trust that group. This group has been fantastic all year or we wouldn't have the record that we did.

"The last 10 games, the emphasis is on the group. The group has to do it. They're the ones who make the decisions with or without the puck. It's really in their hands. I know they'll get it done."

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