Capitals look to regain momentum
ARLINGTON: The Washington Capitals entered the Olympic break atop the NHL standings. That doesn't mean life will be easy as they prepare for their first game in 18 days.
On Wednesday, the Capitals will face the Buffalo Sabres and Ryan Miller, MVP of the Vancouver Olympics and silver medalist as goaltender of the U.S. team.
It just also happens to be the day of the league's trade deadline. And the Capitals are playing with a superstar who's even more motivated than usual. And there's only 20 games over the next 40 days to settle on a No. 1 playoff goalie.
"We want to be playing as well as we can when we hit the playoffs," forward Brooks Laich said. "The next 20 games are going to be used to iron out how we're going to play, and identify our strengths and our weaknesses, and then we want to have momentum going into the playoffs."
First, there is Wednesday's trade deadline, a date that's been a significant milestone in seasons past but is now being downplayed by nearly everyone in the organization. There might be a minor move or two — more depth at the blue line could be a priority — but there seems little logic in disrupting the chemistry of a team that set a franchise record by winning 14 straight games in January and early February.
Team owner and blogger extraordinaire Ted Leonsis posted that he doesn't see the Capitals "doing anything dramatic this week," adding: "I threw out our 'stupid pills' a couple of years ago."
"Sometimes the best move," Laich said, "is not making a move at all."
That said, all is not perfection in Caps Land. After the 14-game streak, the team lost its last three before the break, allowing an average of five goals per game. That's why defensive play has been the message of the last few days.
"We were winning, we were all doing the right things, and then we just got away from doing the right things, and then it's like a runaway train," coach Bruce Boudreau said. "You start scoring goals, and you get so hungry scoring goals that you forget about the other end of the ice."
Boudreau also has three potential No. 1 goalies to juggle, each with at nine wins. Veteran Jose Theodore has as many starts (31) as youngsters Semyon Varlamov (15) and Michal Neuvirth (16) combined. Theodore has a 10-game personal winning streak that tied the franchise record, but his goals-against-average and save percentages are the worst of the three.
Injuries and inconsistency have kept Boudreau for settling on a definitive No. 1. Last year he entered the playoffs with Theodore as his starter, only to yank him in favor of Varlamov after only one game.
"We'll have somebody when we're going into the playoffs as the one that starts," the coach said. "The good thing is we've got guys that are ready to go if that person isn't successful. That's our stance, and I think last year we showed we're not afraid to make a change. We want to win, so, whatever we have to do to put the best team on the ice in my mind to win, we'll do."
Another bit of suspense is whether Alex Ovechkin, who leads the NHL in scoring, can win his third straight league MVP award. Ovechkin didn't have the best of Olympics — he played for the Russia team that was eliminated early, then had to watch as archrival Sidney Crosby scored the winning goal that gave Canada the gold medal.
The best way to return the favor would be to beat Crosby's Pittsburgh Penguins on the way to the Stanley Cup.
"Good situation or bad situation, it gives you more motivation," Ovechkin said. "It's going to be a fresh start, new start for us in the second half of the season."