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With Erat aboard, Capitals feel they can make playoffs

by Ben Raby /

ARLINGTON, Va. -- The Washington Capitals are confident their recent stretch of winning hockey is a sign of things to come and they have the pieces in place for a deep run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Those pieces now include veteran forward Martin Erat, whom the Capitals acquired from the Nashville Predators just before the 2013 NHL Trade Deadline.

Erat waived his no-movement clause before joining Washington, along with minor-league prospect Michael Latta, in exchange for 2012 first-round pick Filip Forsberg.

"It's about trying to be a good team now and in the future," Capitals general manager George McPhee said.

"The players have been playing really well and we weren't going to be sellers. I thought I'd help them out if I could and add another player, and we did. We didn't have to do anything today, but this was something that was raised yesterday, and the more we talked about it, the more we thought we'd like to do it. … I wanted to help this team now."

Erat has four goals and 21 points in 36 games with Nashville this season and has recorded at least 49 points in each of the past eight seasons. The 31-year-old has spent his entire 11-year NHL career with the Predators organization.

"I was excited and I was sad," said Erat, who presented Nashville GM David Poile with a list of 10 teams he'd be willing to join. "I've been in Nashville for 11 years, and it's hard to leave the city when you've been here for this long. But I'm excited for the opportunity to play for a Stanley Cup.

"[The Capitals] have always been in the playoffs. They've got great team. They just had to show it on the ice. Missing couple pieces here at the end, but they've got a chance every year."

The Capitals are 7-3-1 since March 14 and have pulled within two points of the Southeast Division-leading Winnipeg Jets with two games in hand. Washington is within three points of eighth place in the Eastern Conference.

With the recent returns of Mike Green, Brooks Laich and Jack Hillen from long-term injuries, and a favorable schedule down the stretch with eight of 12 games at home, the Capitals are confident a sixth straight playoff berth is in their grasp.

"The expectations are no different than what they were at the start of the season. We thought that we had a real solid team and if we're healthy enough … we could be a playoff team," McPhee said. "You never know once you get in, so let's see what happens. I think we've proven that when we're healthy we're pretty good and I just tried to make them a little bit better today."

The Capitals have overcome a 2-8-1 start that had them buried in the Eastern Conference in early February, and the consensus is that the team is fully acclimated to the system implemented by first-year coach Adam Oates.

"The system and stuff like that that you heard as an excuse for the first month and a half, two months of the season is out the window," forward Matt Hendricks said. "We're not using that. We're starting to play hockey, we're starting to play comfortable hockey and our stars are our stars and that's how you win in this League."

Alex Ovechkin enters play on Thursday on a season-high nine-game scoring streak (10 goals and 15 points), and Nicklas Backstrom is coming off a career-high four assists in a 5-3 win against the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday.

McPhee acknowledged that the Capitals were looking to add scoring depth in the form of another top-six forward.

The Capitals have struggled at times to fill the void left by the offseason departure of Alexander Semin. Jason Chimera (one goal in 36 games) and Wojtek Wolski (two goals in the past 17 games) are among a group of forwards who have seen time on Washington's top two lines this season.

"That will be up to [Oates] as to where exactly [Erat] fits in the lineup. But we have options and flexibility," McPhee said. "The nice thing is that we're getting healthy and we have some options."

The Capitals also have some work to do and some ground to make up in the standings, but the confidence is there that the pieces are in place for the stretch run.

"I have complete confidence in the guys in this room," forward Troy Brouwer said. "We've sputtered at the beginning of this season finding our legs, finding our game, finding our identity. Over the last little while, I feel we've gotten a lot better. We've come closer together as a team, and we've been playing really good hockey as of late, and we put ourselves in a good position to make the playoffs."

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