If the Washington Capitals go on to win the Southeast Division or otherwise qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs, their current stretch will surely be looked back upon as the impetus for that run, however improbable that might have seemed earlier in the season. Sunday evening, before a sellout crowd at Verizon Center, the Caps won their fourth game in a row, knocking off the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-2 to secure sole possession in the division for the first time this season.
The Capitals have a two-point division lead with nine games remaining in this truncated season.
The Caps were paced, as they so often are, by their captain, Alex Ovechkin, who scored twice to tie Steven Stamkos at the top of leaderboard for goals scored this season with 25. Ovechkin has now recorded 16 goals and seven assists in his last 14 games, a period where the Caps have gone 10-4 to catapult them to the top of the division and rejuvenate their once moribund playoff hopes.
Michal Neuvirth’s performance in goal, to the tune of 28 saves, should not be forgotten however. Neuvirth has been something of a forgotten man on the Cpas this season, with Braden Holtby taking command of the No. 1 goaltender job. But with the Caps playing in the second game on back-to-back nights, Neuvy showed that he can still be a quality contributor to the Caps effort down the stretch.
The visitors got on the board first in a somewhat sleepy first stanza, befitting of the back-to-back stature of the game. Granted a power play courtesy of a Steve Oleksy tripping call just 1:45 into the game, the Lightning didn’t waste any time making the Caps pay. A mere seven seconds into the infraction, Vincent Lecavalier beat Neuvirth for his eighth goal of the season, off a feed from Caps nemesis Martin St. Louis.
The Caps tied things up at 3:13 of the second. Jack Hillen collected a pass from Nick Backstrom from the half wall and lofted a shot toward Bolts goalie Ben Bishop. Alex Ovechkin cut through the slot and redirected Hillen’s shot past Bishop for his 24th goal of the season, rising to the No. 2 spot in goals for this season behind Tampa’s Steven Stamkos.
Tampa retook the lead a few moments later when Alex Killorn put a deke on Hillen one-on-one, and Hillen fell to the ice, allowing Killorn to come in alone on Neuvirth and beat him cleanly.
The Caps answered back though in the latter stages of the second period, fairly dominating play and tallying twice more in the frame. John Carlson unloaded a bomb from just over the blue line on a drop pass from Joel Ward that had Bishop looking skyward for help. Less than four minutes later, Ward himself took advantage of forward Nate Thompson, rushing hard to the outside to get position to come on net, and then slipping a shot past Bishop that the 6’6″ netminder should have stopped.
All that was left was for the Caps to stifle any semblance of comeback, something that has proven difficult for them throughout the season. But they thwarted every Lightning attempt to get back into the game, and Ovechkin added his second goal of the night on an empty netter with just five seconds remaining in the contest.
It showed head coach Adam Oates’ great confidence in Ovechkin, having the captain defending the Caps territory in a one-goal game in the final minute.
The Caps are far from a complete project, but they are playing well at the right time and seemingly now have their playoff hopes in their own hands. They have yet to defeat a team that holds a playoff spot in regulation this season, but will have their chances down the stretch to eliminate that negative mark as well, starting Tuesday when they travel to Montreal to face Les Habitents.
Every season there’s a team that no one wants to face come playoff time. Maybe this season that team will be the Washington Capitals.