Capitals' win part of bigger goal

PITTSBURGH -- There were smiles, a few laughs and the usual banter of an NHL dressing room, but nothing close to whooping it up.

The memory of a painful playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the spring does not get erased by a January victory, albeit an impressive 6-3 decision, Thursday night at Mellon Arena.

"We didn't really go into it with intentions that this was a revenge game for last year's playoffs," said Washington Capitals forward Dave Steckel. "They're a completely different story."

Revenge will never be served until the Caps beat the Pens in a playoff series. No one left the rink Thursday night feeling unburdened from May's heartbreaker.

"Yeah, you know, it's one of 82 games," said superstar Washington captain Alex Ovechkin, he of the two goals and one assist in the first meeting between the two teams this season. "We're happy we win, but still, it's over and we have to be ready for next game."

But what the Caps are learning about themselves these days is that their evolution as a top-notch Cup contender continues upward. Earning victories against Philadelphia, Detroit and Pittsburgh in their past three games looks mighty impressive on the January report card.

"It's a week where you can measure where you're at," agreed veteran Washington goalie Jose Theodore, now a winner in five straight games. "The Philly game was a big win, and beating Detroit and Pittsburgh, two top teams from last year, was huge. It's good for our confidence and beating these guys in their building. I thought it was a good win. We just have to keep going."

You see, for the Caps, it's not about January wins or vendetta games, it's about the process. They are trying to get to that next level, and they found out this past spring that the little things need to be done over and over again in the regular season to become second nature come playoff time. That means pond hockey, as fun as it is to watch, isn't the way to go.

"More consistently this year, we've played 60 minutes," Steckel said. "That's our focus heading into the playoffs hopefully."

On Thursday night, the Caps were able to play shut-down hockey in the third period, something that eluded them on many nights last season. It's a great sign if you're a Washington fan.

"We all know them as an offensive group, but they have some guys who are more than capable of being responsible defensively," said superstar Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who tallied his 33rd goal of the season Thursday.

"If we do what Coach says, I think nobody can stop us," Ovechkin said.

A new participant in this evolutionary stage of the Caps this season is veteran center Brendan Morrison. He has observed a young team that has grown.

"I really get that sense here that they've learned some lessons from the last couple of years," Morrison said. "I think we've been able to rebound this year from when we've had some poor games, and I think that's a sign of a good team, that overall our consistency has been there for the most part of the year."

What is really impressive, and certainly noteworthy, of the 2009-10 Capitals is they seem as deep as ever. They are 7-2-0 when playing without either Ovechkin or Mike Green in the lineup this season, the latter having missed Thursday's game with an undisclosed injury. He's officially listed as day to day.

"We threw out the fourth line tonight, and I think they hemmed them in on every shift," Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said. "[Eric] Fehr scores a goal on the third line; you have [Tomas] Fleischmann scoring on the second line; all three guys -- Ovi, Mike [Knuble] and Nick [Backstrom] -- scored on that line. It's pretty tough when teams want to shut us down right now. I think anybody can score on the team, and I think that's the way they feel on a given night -- that a new hero can arise."

The caveat in this hopeful journey to the top, of course, lies in goal. Theodore has been terrific of late; injured Semyon Varlamov was on fire until he got hurt; and Michal Neuvirth has shown flashes. But no one is pretending the Caps have a Marc-Andre Fleury-type option right now. You have to figure Varlamov probably will be the guy come April and May, but that's putting a lot of faith (and prayer?) in a rookie netminder.

You saw Thursday night what a difference Fleury makes in this rivalry. He was out again with a fractured finger on his left hand, and backup Brent Johnson looked very much the backup. Come springtime, however, The Flower will be back, and if these two powerhouse franchises meet again, you still end up looking at goaltending and wondering whether that isn't the edge for the Penguins.

"These guys are going to be great," Boudreau said. "Fleury always comes up big in the playoffs."

This much we know: No one is going to object to another Caps-Pens playoff series. For a regular-season game, there was plenty of intensity Thursday night.

"It was a tense game out there, emotional," Crosby said. "These are fun games to be a part of. You don't like to lose to them, but that's why you play the game, for games like that."

Ovechkin, now at 32 goals for the season, underlined the only point that matters to his team.

"We want to be in that spot where they were last year," he said.

And to get there, Washington just might have to go through Pittsburgh again.

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.