By Steve Keating
TORONTO (Reuters) - Alexander Ovechkin is awakening from his scoring slumber and the Washington Capitals launched their post-season push with weekend wins over the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs.
In a 24-hour span, the Capitals went from playoff outsiders to part of the Stanley Cup picture with a 4-1 victory over Montreal at home Friday followed by a gritty 4-2 away win against the Maple Leafs Saturday.
The two wins left the Capitals on 67 points, one point outside the top-eight and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Washington have 20 games left in the regular season.
Ovechkin missed Wednesday's game against the Ottawa Senators with an undisclosed injury, but picked up a goal and two assists in the weekend sweep.
"It's an important game for us, two huge games," Ovechkin told reporters. "Without winning we are not going to be in the playoffs.
"I think everybody realizes right now we can't take a step back. We have to push forward."
Nearly a unanimous pick to win the Eastern Conference, the Capitals got the season off to a blazing start by winning their first seven games and looked ready to run away with the conference.
But just as quickly, the Capitals entered a downward spiral that the team has yet to completely break out of.
They arrived in Toronto still trying to pull out of the nosedive, having won just twice in their last eight games.
It is unfamiliar territory for Ovechkin and the Capitals, who have finished top the East standings the last two season.
"It's definitely different for us," said Capitals defenseman Mike Green.
"But we have to work to earn our spot. It's forcing us to play our best hockey going into the playoffs and we have to make sure we're there."
Part of their problem has been the drop-off in scoring by their Russian captain.
Ovechkin, twice a winner of the Maurice Richard trophy as the NHL's top marksman and an Art Ross trophy as leading scorer who has accumulated more than 100 points in four of the last six seasons, has sputtered along with 25 goals and 23 assists this season.
The scoring malaise can be traced back to the Capitals lack of post-season success and an emphasis on team defense ahead of flashy offense - a switch that has never quite seemed to fit the Russian.
Ovechkin has also had to deal with injuries, suspensions and a coaching change but with the post-season on the horizon the Russian is again starting to display some of the offensive flair the made him the NHL's most exciting player.
"I feel pretty good," smiled Ovechkin after Saturday's win. "My line did a pretty good job and set the tone right away and scored goals.
"I don't have many chances but I just did some different things.
You can't think about different (teams)...it is all about us.
"It doesn't matter right now where we play, who we play, we just have do some little things to help the team win."
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)