Friday night’s tilt with the Lightning was the second of a four-game homestand in which the Capitals have a chance to collect points against the weaker teams in the Eastern Conference. Troy Brouwer’s first-career hat trick and Tomas Vokoun’s stallwart late-game effort in the crease led the Capitals to a 4-3 victory and their eighth win in nine home games.
“I think we got to start winning some games here,” Capitals defenseman Dennis Wideman said. “We want to finish up well before the all-star break. We’ve got to put some distance between us and the teams behind us.”
Within the first six minutes, the Lightning, needing all the momentum they could get, found themselves in three short-handed situations. Their 25th-ranked penalty-kill was not up to the task, surrendering goals on two of the three PK attempts.
With Martin St. Louis serving a minor for interference, Ovechkin capitalized first. Brouwer set a screen and Ovechkin placed a snap shot low past Lightning netminder Dwayne Roloson on just the second shot of the game for the Capitals.
“(The power play goals) have definitely helped our team this season,” Capitals forward Matt Hendricks said. “We get the first (goal) and we seem to get our confidence going.”
Shortly thereafter, Lightning defenseman Eric Brewer put the puck over the glass in his own end, putting the Capitals on their third man-advantage. This time Brouwer took on the more glorious role of goal-scorer. After collecting a pass along the goal line from Alex Semin, Brouwer caught Roloson giving up the five hole while hugging the post and snuck it through.
The Lightning had two power play opportunities of their own later in the period but were unable to convert.
Brouwer, again from within 10 feet of the crease, boosted the lead to 3-0 at 5:25 of the second. With the Capitals cycling the puck, Roloson turned aside Brooks Laich’s close-range shot but the rebound found Brouwer between the circles for an empty-net tap in.
“These games mean a lot more (with Tampa Bay in the same division),” Brouwer said. “It’s got more of a different feel to it than a boring, go along with it game. These (games) get you right into it from the beginning.”
Then, fans were treated to a rare spectacle: a Karl Alzner fight. The Capitals defenseman, noted for his quick feet and solid positioning, engaged in his first career fight with rugged forward Steve Downie (the fourth of his professional hockey career). Alzner was taken down but held his own before serving a coincidental fighting major with his sparring parter.
The Lightning finally solved Capitals goaltender Tomas Vokoun late in the second when St Louis stripped Mike Knuble of the puck behind the net and found center Tom Pyatt in front of the crease to break the shutout.
Tampa Bay then began to tilt the ice towards the Capitals’ end, limiting the Capitals to zero shots on goal over the next 18 minutes of hockey. Whether that was more of a product of a surge of energy by the Lightning or the Capitals sagging back with a third-period lead may be up for debate.
Either way, Steven Stamkos had a chance to pull the Lightning to within one in the third when he took advantage of a weak Roman Hamrlik dump-in and broke free the other way. Vokoun denied the league leader in goals scored and in fact made many brilliant saves in the effort.
The Lightning wound up outshooting the Capitals 15-7 in the third. Still, Semin nearly put the Lightning away on a power play in which he hit the post twice, but the Capitals ultimately failed to convert. Then things got heated.
Brouwer sent St. Louis sprawling into the boards on a shoulder-to-shoulder hit, immediately provoking Stamkos to drop the gloves and attack Brouwer. Both Brouwer and Stamkos were tagged with fighting minors, but Brouwer ended up with a boarding call.
“He’s hard to play against,” Capitals head coach Dale Hunter said of Brouwer. “He’s a tough guy and he’s also got skills. He’s one of those rare combinations that every coach likes.”
The Capitals successfully killed off the power play but found themselves short-handed immediately afterwards when Hamrlik flipped a puck into the crowd for a delay of game. This time Stamkos made them pay, beating Vokoun from between the circles with 3:24 to go.
Vokoun (28 saves) had to turn aside several other quality chances before Brouwer potted an empty-netter for the hat-trick.
“I’m pretty excited,” Brouwer said. “I was close once before. It’s a special feat, but at the same time I’m excited about the win tonight.”
Vincent Lecavalier tipped in a shot with ten seconds remaining to make it interesting, but the Capitals would hold on to win eight of their last nine on home ice.
Whether getting outshot 31-20 and hanging on for dear life in the third is a long-term recipe for success for the Capitals remains to be seen. Either way, the Capitals seem to be in a groove at home, where they’ve scored on five of their last 11 power plays and have killed 30 of 31 penalties.
The win pulled Washington to within two points of the division-leading Florida Panthers, who lost to the Penguins Friday with one game in hand.