Washington’s mad dash for a playoff berth continued Sunday night with a 4-2 win over Tampa Bay. A second period offensive outburst, including Alexander Ovechkin’s 16th goal in his last 14 games, powered the Caps over the Lightning, who are all but eliminated from the playoff race.
Nicklas Backstrom recorded his 300th career assist on Ovechkin’s second-period goal. Ovechkin, coming off a four-point, three-goal night against Florida, added an empty netter with time ticking down in the game and is now tied with Tampa’s Steven Stamkos with 25 tallies.
The Capitals have a game in hand and are now two points ahead of the Winnipeg Jets, whose next game is Tuesday against the lowly Buffalo Sabres.
Washington also owns the best 10-game stretch in the Eastern Conference, posting an 8-1-1 record since losing to Pittsburgh on March 19. Much of their success can be attributed to the play of Ovechkin, who has been on a tear since mid March. In fact, it seems Washington’s successes and failures as a team have mirrored those of their captain. The Capitals’ struggles early in the season matched those of Ovechkin, who initially faltered while playing under a new coach and on the opposite side of the ice.
“I give him ultimate compliment for doing it,” Capitals head coach Adam Oates said of Ovechkin moving to right wing. “He’s been a very, very successful man playing his off side.”
While putting up points is an important facet of Ovechkin’s game, the Great Eight is also someone who can be trusted to play well with an important game on the line.
“You’re adding responsibility to their game and you want to make players grow,” Oates said of his decision to put Ovechkin on the ice with time running out in the third period. “That’s the ultimate compliment, when a coach puts you out there late in the game.”
With 22 points in his last 14 games, Oates has every reason to be confident in his captain. The Caps’ coach also noted that aside from becoming more comfortable on his off-wing, Ovechkin is no longer staying on the perimeter. He’s going to different areas of the ice and putting himself in a position to be more involved with the play.
“Look at (Ovechkin’s) goal tonight, the first goal, it’s a tip,” Oates said. “He’s got two tips in five games. When did he ever do that before? Because he’s around the puck more.”
Despite their recent successes, the Capitals’ hold on the Southeast Division title is still tenuous. The Jets have an easier schedule down the stretch, playing just 3 playoff teams in their last eight games, including Washington. With nine games remaining, the Caps have a tough swing through the strong Northeast Division, playing Montreal and Ottawa twice as well as Toronto and the Bruins. Winnipeg and Washington meet on April 23rd in DC in what could end up being a deciding game for each teams’ playoff hopes.
And while winning in the regular season is certainly fun, and a lot more like what they have been used to the past several years, the Caps know all too well that the slate will be wiped clean this May, if they make it to the postseason.
“It doesn’t matter,” Backstrom said when asked if the team’s current streak reminded him of the years when the Capitals sat atop the Eastern Conference. “We weren’t successful in the playoffs (in the past). But we’re trying to get a playoff spot here and we’ll go from there.”
The Caps have only one day to rest before taking on the Northeast Division-leading Habs in Montreal on Tuesday night.
With Steve Olesky in the box for interference, the Lightning struck first at 1:52 of the first period, just seven seconds into their power play. Martin St. Louis sent a pass from the right circle to the tape of Vincent Lecavalier in the slot. Tampa’s captain tapped the puck past Neuvirth for his 8th goal of the season.
The Caps knotted the scored 3:14 into the second when Ovechkin deflected Jack Hillen’s shot from the left point past Lightning goalie Ben Bishop. Washington’s celebration was short-lived, however, as Lecavalier found Lightning forward Alex Killhorn breaking through the neutral zone. Killhorn slipped behind Hillen and dished a shot through Neuvirth’s five hole to put Tampa on top again at 6:37 of the second.
John Carlson neutralized Tampa’s lead 12:54 into the second period with his slap shot from the high slot and Joel Ward picked up his second point of the night, putting the Caps ahead for good and notching what would prove to be the game-winner at 16:21 of the second period. Ovechkin sealed the win with the empty net goal – his team’s first of the season – with five seconds left in the third period.
Joel Ward appeared to be hurt after blocking a shot in the third period, but Adam Oates assured reporters he is fine and will be traveling with the team to Montreal.