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Caps begin to bust out

Four wins in row put club on last playoff rung

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The beauty of the long NHL schedule is that a club can sit in neutral, searching for the right gear for most of the season, and still have enough time to roll into the playoffs.

That's what's happening with the Washington Capitals this year. Considered the favourite for the Southeast Division crown, the Caps have struggled for the most part, standing outside the playoff picture for extended periods over the winter.

These days, even as they readied themselves for a game with the Winnipeg Jets, the Capitals are driving in the right direction. Four straight wins before Friday vaulted the Caps into eighth place in the conference -- with breathing room over the Jets and Buffalo Sabres.

Has Washington finally figured things out, or is their patience paying off?

"I don't know if you can (say) patience," captain Alex Ovechkin said.

"We all know we have a pretty good offence; right now, we have to play more defensively and help out. We have good goalies and we have to give them help. If it's going to be easy for them, it's going to be easy for us."

Ovechkin has been a big part of the recent Washington march. Coming into Friday, he had four points (3G, 1A) in the last four games.

Getting wild horses like Ovechkin -- one of the more dynamic scorers in the NHL -- to keep team defence and his own goaltenders in mind is what head coach Dale Hunter has been preaching since taking command of the Caps bench at the end of November.

Players have been slow to buy in, some criticizing the system, or lack thereof, but right now, the results are coming in.

Just in time, too.

"We're getting good goaltending and some timely scoring," Hunter said. "We've come back in some games... basically playing playoff-style hockey. (We're) playing hard."

GLASS HALF FULL: Can NHL hockey really work in Saskatoon?

The Jets' resident Saskatchewan expert, Regina native Tanner Glass, thinks it can. Earlier this month, a report surfaced that a group had contacted the NHL regarding Saskatoon for big-league membership.

Saskatoon's population is around 260,000, easily making it the smallest city in the NHL loop if it joins. Still, says Glass, it's hockey country, and if a potential ownership group follows the same plan as True North did, it could work.

"It's a small city, but the way the economy is, the way Saskatchewan is booming right now, I can see how people would want it there," Glass said.

The 28-year-old believes people from Regina would make the three-hour drive up to Saskatoon for games, comparing the situation to the CFL's Saskatchewan Roughriders.

People drive from all over the province to go to Riders games.

The popular football institution provides only nine home dates a season -- not 41-plus games -- so the novelty might wear off a little faster for fans commuting through the winter Prairies to watch a hockey team.

Glass doesn't discount the puck pluck of the Saskatchewan fan, though.

"(An AHL) team would be a great start," he said. "That's what they did here. Show it can work with the AHL. It gives you a better template to look at, to see if the big league can run."

SAY AGAIN: The games at this time of the season are big for the Jets. They've been big for the Jets for the last month or so, as they try to squeeze their way into the post-season.

And with these big games come the same questions about them. Morning skates are an exercise in repetition for players, centre Bryan Little offered Friday, but that's the situation the club has put itself in.

"Every day for the past month it's been the exact same questions: How big the game is, what it's like at home -- it's seems like it's the same thing," Little said. "For us, though, it almost is. It seems like every game is a big game for us."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 17, 2012 C3

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