Playoffs on the line: Ovechkin begins 'most important week' of NHL career

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ARLINGTON, Va. - The NHL's leading scorer is eager to get into the playoffs for the first time. Most everyone agrees it would be good for the league as a whole if he gets there.

The next few days will determine if he makes it. Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals finish the regular season with three home games, likely needing to win them all if they are to cap a turnaround season with the franchise's first playoff berth since 2003.

"It's probably the most important week ... in my NHL career," Ovechkin said Monday.

Translation: Look out, NHL.

"The bigger the game," defenceman Mike Green said, "the harder he plays."

The Capitals host Carolina (Tuesday), Tampa Bay (Thursday) and Florida (Saturday). They'll need another team to stumble even if they go 3-0, but the good news for Washington is that there are five teams - Carolina, Ottawa, the New York Rangers, Boston and Philadelphia - within reach.

"It still isn't completely in our hands," coach Bruce Boudreau said. "If every team continues to win, even if we win we're not going to get there. But we firmly believe that the Big Guy will shine on us at some point and something good will happen if we continue to play the way we're playing."

The Capitals have won eight of nine and just got home from a 5-1 road trip. Only a die-hard fan could have believed they would be playing so well - and that their heads would be spinning with playoff permutations - when Glen Hanlon was fired and replaced by Boudreau in late November.

But the scoreboard watching indeed has gone into overdrive. The team briefly delayed its departure from Florida after a win over the Panthers on Saturday so the players could watch the end of other games involving teams in the Eastern Conference playoff race.

"It kind of drives you crazy," defenceman Tom Poti said. "You don't want to watch it too much because in the last 2 1/2 weeks it's changed about 100 different times. This team's up. That team's down. You get a little bit excited when somebody loses; you get upset when somebody wins."

Boudreau, a first-time NHL coach, is so caught up in the race that he carries a book that contains the league's schedule and meticulously checks off each game.

"On the plane they told me, 'Put that book away - you've got to have it memorized by now,"' Boudreau said. "Everything could go wrong even if we win, but it could get awful interesting in the league if everything went another way."

If the Capitals get there, surely Ovechkin will lead them. He has the league's goal-scoring title wrapped up - his 62 goals are 12 better than anyone else - and his 109 points make him a safe bet to win that title as well.

But, until now, the dynamic Russian left wing hasn't been anywhere close to the playoffs. The Capitals were a losing, rebuilding team during his first two seasons. His post-season debut would provide a lift felt beyond his own locker room.

"It would be great for the fans, for the league, for TV, for media, for us, obviously," said veteran centre Sergei Fedorov, a former league MVP. "He's a marquee player. He's having a great season. I think overall it's going to be exciting, create a sort of buzz about the game."

Of course, as Boudreau pointed out, not everyone is rooting for Ovechkin.

"Not that I think Boston gives a hoot about that, or Philly gives a hoot, or Carolina gives a hoot about it," the coach said, "but I think if it ever did happen, it would be good for hockey."

On Monday, Ovechkin talked about controlling his emotions this week. He also spoke of the struggles the young team endured the last two seasons and dished out the usual cliches about fighting hard.

"It's an interesting stage right now," he said. "It's all about having fun, and it's all about winning the game."

But as he finished his talk with reporters, he broke into a big smile.

"Oh," he said, "I love it."



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