The Washington Capitals did something that they had accomplished only once in more than a month when they defeated the Tampa Bay Lighting, 4-2, last night at Verizon Center. They won at home. Since beating the Columbus Blue Jackets by the same 4-2 margin on November 11th, the Caps had won just once in five tries on home ice – a 5-2 win over the New York Islanders on November 26th – before the win last night.
The Caps and Lightning played to a scoreless first period and ten minutes of the second period. Then, the Lightning made the mistake of taking an icing call at the 10:27 mark. Nicklas Backstrom won the ensuing faceoff to the right of Lightning goalie Ben Bishop, drawing he puck back to Nate Schmidt at the left point. Schmidt slid to his right and flung a wrist shot at the Tampa net. The puck did not get through, it being deflected to Bishop’s right. Backstrom was quick on the loose puck and from the inside hash marks of the faceoff circle let fly with a backhand that eluded Bishop to give the Caps the lead.
That was just the start. And it was Backstrom starting things again. Skating through the neutral zone, Backstrom fed the puck ahead to Tom Wilson at the Lightning blue line. Wilson skated in, then dropped the puck for Backstrom trailing down the slot. Backstrom’s drive was stopped by Bishop, as was the rebound attempt by Alex Ovechkin. Bishop could not secure the puck, though, and with it lying at the post to Bishop’s left, Backstrom threaded it between a diving Bishop’s glove and the post to make it 2-0 with just 80 seconds left in the second period.
Backstrom completed the natural hat trick, the first regular season hat trick of any kind in his career barely two minutes into the second period. It started with Backstrom leading a 3-on-2 rush through the neutral zone. At the Tampa Bay line, Backstrom fed Alex Ovechkin on his right. Ovechkin returned the puck to Backstrom heading to the net down the middle. Collecting the puck after an attempted poke check from Andrej Sustr, Backstrom snapped the puck past Bishop to start the hats raining down.
The Lightning made things interesting with goals less than two minutes apart in the back half of the third period by Tyler Johnson and Matt Carle. That was as close as Tampa Bay would get, however. In the last minute John Carlson backhanded the puck out of the Capitals’ zone to relive pressure from the Lightning. At center ice Valtteri Filppula and Jason Garrison ran into one another, both tumbling to the ice. It left Eric Fehr all alone to fire the puck into the empty net for the final 4-2 margin.
-- The Caps’ 4-0-1 run over their last five games is their best five-game stretch of the season. Perhaps most satisfying is that in doing so they have allowed only ten goals, only once allowing three goals in regulation, and that was in a win in which the third goal was scored with four seconds left.
-- The hat trick might have been Nicklas Backstrom’s first in the regular season portion of his career, but he also has a playoff hat trick. It was his hat trick goal in overtime that beat the Montreal Canadiens in Game 2 of their Stanley Cup playoff series (the Caps lost, four games to three).
-- The Caps held the Lightning to two shots on goal in the first period, Mark Barberio and Tyler Johnson recording them.
-- Alex Ovechkin recorded seven shots on goal, the third straight game in which he recorded seven or more (23 in all with two goals) and the first time this season he recorded seven or more shots in three straight games. It was the first time he did so since a five game, December 27 – January 4, last season (42 shots, one goal).
-- It was the top line’s night to shine. In addition to Backstrom’s hat trick, Ovechkin had a pair of assists, was plus-3, and had five hits. Tom Wilson had a pair of assists (his first two-assist game of his career), was a plus-2, and traded punches with Brenden Morrow less than two minutes into the game.
-- Does plus-minus mean anything? Well, John Carlson was a plus-2. He is plus-11 over his last eight games. He is tied for 17th among defensemen in that statistic for the season (plus-9), and his assist on Eric Fehr’s empty-netter left him tied for fifth among defensemen in total scoring (4-18-22).
-- Ben Bishop has faced Washington more than any other team this season – three times. It has not turned out especially well for him. The Caps are the only team against which he has as many as two losses in regulation, and in giving up three goals on 27 shots his save percentage against the Caps this season sank below .900 (.899).
-- The game might have turned 6:49 into the second period when Mike Green took a hooking penalty, and Alex Ovechkin took a roughing penalty to give the Lightning a 5-on-3 power play for two full minutes. Two minutes later, Tampa Bay had shots from Victor Hedman, Valtteri Filppula, Ryan Callahan, and Steven Stamkos and no goals. Less than two minutes later, Nicklas Backstrom scored to make it 1-0, Caps.
-- When the Caps get everyone going in one game, it is going to be a thing to behold. While the top line had a big night (a combined 3-4-7, plus-7), the second line of Evgeny Kuznetsov, Troy Brouwer, and Marcus Johansson had no points and only three shots on goal (all from Kuznetsov, but only one of those at even strength).
-- Andre Burakovsky has a bit of a hill to climb, ice time-wise. He skated just 8:35, less than six minutes of that at even strength (5:45). Only twice this season has he skated fewer total minutes. He is 1-0-1, minus-5 in his last 11 games.
In the end…
This was another good win against a quality opponent in the Eastern Conference. The 5-on-3 penalty kill was the inspiring sort of effort that can propel a team forward, and it certainly appeared to do wonders for the Caps. The top line did what a top line has to do, and the Caps got solid play from the folks asked to keep the other guys’ top line from doing what they have to do. The Caps are about to enter what looks like a bit softer part of the schedule teams that folks might normally associate with being winners. Florida? The hapless Panthers? They’re 12-8-8. Columbus? They’re on a six-game winning streak, including an overtime win over the Caps. Ottawa? They’ve climbed back to .500. OK, New Jersey is struggling, but the truth is, it really doesn’t get any easier. The difference is that the Caps are playing solid hockey and seem equal to the task.