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Washington Capitals' Mike Knuble (22) celebrates with teammate Alex Ovechkin, left, of Russia, after scoring a goal against Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Steve Mason during the second period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, March 31, 2011, in Washington. (Luis M. Alvarez/AP)
Washington Capitals' Mike Knuble (22) celebrates with teammate Alex Ovechkin, left, of Russia, after scoring a goal against Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Steve Mason during the second period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, March 31, 2011, in Washington. (Luis M. Alvarez/AP)

David Shoalts

Caps not prepared to rest on their laurels Add to ...

The Washington Capitals cruised into Toronto sitting in a tie for the lead in the NHL's Eastern Conference, but the league's Lamborghini is still sporting a few nicks and a definite ping.

"We've got to buckle down a little bit," was how Capitals head coach Bruce Boudreau put it after his team pulled out an overtime win against the Buffalo Sabres last Saturday, although he changed his tune slightly after Monday's practice.

"People who don't play think, why can't you play at the absolute best of your game, not only 82 times a year? To which I say, 'How come you can't go to work and have the absolute greatest day of your life at work every day you go to work?' " Boudreau said in his daily media scrum, which was posted on the Capitals website.

"It's the art of competition. Sometimes we're not as good as we'd like to be.

"But if I start complaining about getting only five of six points we're in real trouble."

The latter reference was to the Capitals' record in their three-game home-stand, which concluded with the overtime win over Buffalo. They also lost 3-2 in a shootout to the Carolina Hurricanes and beat the Columbus Blue Jackets 4-3 in overtime.

That wrapped up a great month of March for the Capitals, who went 12-2-1 after comparatively mediocre play in the previous three months. The win over the Sabres moved them into first place in the Eastern Conference with 103 points after being absent from the top spot since Dec. 5.

A day later, the Philadelphia Flyers lost to the New York Rangers in a shootout, but since the NHL rewards mediocrity, the single point allowed the Flyers to tie the Capitals. The teams will now decide first place over their final three games of the regular season, with the Capitals meeting the Toronto Maple Leafs, who have a mighty big reason of their own to play with maniacal fury, on Tuesday at the Air Canada Centre.

During the month of March, the Capitals finally got a handle on matching a better defensive game with the offensive power of the likes of Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom. They also added centre Jason Arnott to improve their secondary scoring and defenceman Dennis Wideman to make up for the loss of Mike Green and Tom Poti to injuries.

Goaltender Michal Neuvirth took over the No. 1 goaltender's job from Semyon Varlamov and now appears to be the one the Capitals will count on in the playoffs. His work helped make the penalty-killing unit toxic for power plays.

But that ping under the hood hasn't quite gone away even if Ovechkin now looks more like the Ovechkin who scored 50 goals last season instead of the one who struggled most of this season and goes into the Leafs game with 30.

Injuries to the defence are the most obvious problem. Green, the biggest offensive weapon on the blue line, was lost to a concussion Feb. 6 and may not play until the regular-season finale. Poti still can't play because of a groin injury and Wideman, who stabilized the defence after arriving at the NHL trade deadline, was lost last week to a hematoma in his leg.

The only good news is that John Erskine is expected to return from an undisclosed injury and fellow defenceman Tyler Sloan, who took a hit to the head from Sabres forward Cody McCormick, should also be able to play.

However, the Capitals also need to fix a few other things. Their decision-making needs some improvement, which is why they coughed up leads in all three of those home games last week and had to roar back to force overtime. They also slipped into some lazy habits, which prompted Arnott to tell the Washington Post the Caps made "a lot of nonchalant plays that we don't normally make."

The game against the Leafs should be the Capitals' hardest of their last three (they close with a home-and-road set against the Florida Panthers). With the Leafs desperately clinging to playoff hopes, Boudreau knows his players have to smooth those rough edges.

"They are probably the highest-scoring team and most offensively-gifted team we've faced, other than Philadelphia, in the East," Boudreau said of the Maple Leafs. "They are living on the edge and will be playing hard. It should be a good test for us."

Follow on Twitter: @dshoalts

 

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