Four-Ward March – Thrice earlier this season, the Washington Capitals had put together three-game winning streaks. And thrice earlier this season, they were unable to extend those winning runs to four games. But on Sunday night at Verizon Center, Washington won its fourth game in succession with an important 4-2 triumph over the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Caps right wing Joel Ward helped key the victory, setting up the tying goal and scoring the winning tally. In the third period, Ward left the game after sacrificing his body to block a Sami Salo slapper from center point. According to Caps coach Adam Oates, Ward will accompany the Caps to Montreal when they leave on Monday for a Tuesday road date with the Canadiens.
“He’s okay,” says Oates of Ward. “He took a hard shot there. He was walking it off and he’s okay.”
Tampa Bay took an early 1-0 lead on a Vincent Lecavalier power play goal. Just seven seconds after Caps defenseman Steve Oleksy was seated for interference, Lightning winger Martin St. Louis slid a pass to Lecavalier in the slot and the Lightning captain deftly deflected the puck past Caps goalie Michal Neuvirth to make it 1-0 at 1:52 of the first frame.
“Obviously it wasn’t the start I wanted,” says Neuvirth. “To give up a goal on the first shot is always tough. But I stuck to my game and after I made a couple of saves I was starting to feel better. In the second period, I felt like myself.”
Washington responded in the second, drawing even when Caps captain Alex Ovechkin tipped a Jack Hillen point shot past Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop.
The Lightning’s Alex Killorn regained the lead for his team just over three minutes later. Killorn skated up the middle through neutral ice, shook off Hillen, cut to the middle and tucked the puck through Neuvirth’s five-hole to put the Bolts on top 2-1.
Caps right wing Joel Ward put a pass on a tee for blueliner John Carlson just past the midway mark of the middle stanza, Eric Fehr managed to just stay onside and Carlson blasted a rocket that beat Bishop high to the glove side.
Shortly after Carlson’s strike, the Caps struck again to take the lead. Ward came down his off wing on a 3-on-2 rush and seemed to sell the possibility of a pass across to Bishop, who left just enough space on the near side in which Ward nestled a short side wrist shot to give the Caps a 3-2 lead late in the second.
Ovechkin tacked on a late empty-netter, scoring into an empty cage despite Killorn’s pokecheck try from the Tampa Bay bench.
Sunday was one of the two games in hand the Caps held with the Winnipeg Jets, their co-leaders in the Southeast Division. With Sunday’s win, the Caps still hold a game in hand on the Jets, but they also now lead Winnipeg by two points.
Net Worth – Neuvirth won 27 games to lead the Capitals in 2010-11, but he has struggled with illness and injury at times this season. With Braden Holtby playing well in the Washington nets for the last two months, Neuvirth’s starts have been few and far between.
“It’s tough,” says Neuvirth of his relative inactivity this season. “It’s the first time in my career. But it is what it is. I’ve got to stick to my game and focus on myself and Holtsy’s playing great, so there’s no need to change. But I’m happy I got the win and he could use a little rest tonight.”
Holtby has had two runs of 11 straight starts, and Neuvirth has missed three scheduled starts over the last six weeks because of injury or illness.
With Holtby in need of a rest, Neuvirth got the net on Sunday for the first time since March 16 and was excellent throughout the night. He finished with 28 saves to earn his third win of the season.
“I can’t say enough about Neuvy,” says Hillen. “He did a great job tonight. That’s what you need him to do. He made big saves for us to keep us in the game early there. He was excellent. He was definitely our number one star today for sure.”
Shutdown Street – Coming into Sunday’s game, the Lightning’s high-octane offense was tied for the league lead with an average of 3.19 goals per game. Neuvirth made some big stops along the way to be sure, but Washington’s six blueliners were at their best in denying time and space to the likes of St. Louis, Stamkos and Lecavalier.
“Obviously going into the game,” says Hillen, “they’re the focus of our game plan as defensemen, to try to be sharp on them. I thought we shut them down pretty well tonight. They’re going to get their chances; they’re good players. But we did a pretty good job tonight.”
With his team’s playoff chances at stake, Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper rode his big horses hard, playing both St. Louis and Stamkos just under 22 minutes each in the second of back-to-back games and the team’s third game in four nights.
Washington’s top tandem of Karl Alzner and Mike Green each skated more than 25 minutes on the night. The Caps were able to keep each of their other four blueliners between 14:51 (Hillen) and 17:59 (Carlson) on the night.
30 Nights – With the conclusion of tonight’s game, the Caps have finished up the toughest stretch of their 2012-13 schedule. Tonight ended a span in which Washington played 17 games in 30 nights, with 11 of those contests coming on the road and 10 of them coming as part of back-to-back pairs of games.
The Caps passed through that onerous stretch with a 10-6-1 mark. Washington started that span by losing three straight, so the Caps are 10-3-1 in their last 14 games.
For a team that got home in the wee hours of Sunday morning after a Saturday night contest in Florida and club that has played a lot of high-leverage hockey over the last 30 nights, the Caps had a great deal of energy in Sunday’s game.
“I was really encouraged with the energy we had,” says Oates, “almost surprising in a sense. Obviously, we got home very late. The first period was a little sluggish as you’d expect. But then we had great energy. They came with a lot of speed and we handled it. I thought we skated great.”
Star Power – Sunday’s game featured two of the league’s top three goal scorers in Ovechkin and Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos and two of the NHL’s top setup men in St. Louis and Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom.
Ovechkin scored twice to pull even with Stamkos – who did not score despite teeing up eight shots and getting three on net – for the NHL lead with 25 goals.
St. Louis and Backstrom each had one assist, so St. Louis maintains his four-helper lead over Backstrom. Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby leads the NHL with 41 assists.
Driver 8 – Less than a month ago, commentators were crushing him and writers were vilifying him. These days, some of those same folks – nationally and locally – are fawning over Ovechkin.
The left wing turned right wing continued his ascension up the league’s scoring ladder on Sunday, moving into a tie for the league lead for goals with Stamkos and settling into sixth place in the league’s scoring race with 43 points.
Ovechkin’s pace over the first 39 games of this abbreviated season would result in 53 goals and 90 points if maintained over a full 82-game NHL slate. He was named the league’s No. 1 star for the week ending March 24, and after piling up seven goals and nine points in four games this week, he’s got a good shot at earning that honor again on Monday.
Coming next: the advanced stats types are going to tell you that Ovechkin’s 14.2% shooting rate isn’t sustainable. Not to worry, he’ll just shoot more.
The 300 Club – With his helper on Ovechkin’s goal at 3:14 of the second, Backstrom recorded the 300th assist of his NHL career, doing so in his 404th career contest. Backstrom becomes the 10th Washington player to accrue 300 assists. Michal Pivonka tops the Caps’ all-time assist list with 418 in 825 games.
Helping Hands – Hillen collected a pair of assists on Sunday to record his first multiple-point game as a Capital. It was his first multiple-point game since Feb. 10, 2011 when he was a member of the New York Islanders.
The smooth-skating rearguard was a bit shorn of sleep on Sunday; his wife gave birth on Saturday to their second child, a son.
Knox Patrick Hillen was born while his dad was in Florida helping the Caps to a 4-3 win over the Panthers on Saturday.
Two Up – With his assist on Carlson’s second-period goal, Ward recorded his 19th point of the season. Minutes later, he scored a goal for his 20th point (eight goals, 12 assists). With 20 points in 39 games this season, Ward has put up two more points than he had in 73 games with Washington in 2011-12 (six goals, 12 assists).
Ward’s career high in goals is 17 and his single-season standard for points is 35; both were established with Nashville in 2008-09. His 2012-13 pace would have him set a new standard for points if this were a regular 82-game campaign.
Down On the Farm – The AHL Hershey Bears finished up a busy weekend with a Sunday visit to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to take on the Baby Pens. The Bears absorbed a 4-3 setback.
Hershey got on the board first on a Dmitry Orlov goal in the second minute of the game, but the host Penguins rallied for four straight goals to put Hershey in a 4-1 hole heading into the final frame.
The Bears bounced back to 4-2 on a Ryan Potulny power play goal midway through the second, and they put some fear into the Pens when Peter LeBlanc scored again just two and a half minutes later. But the Hershey rally stopped there, and the Bears lost for the second time in three games this weekend.
Defenseman Nate Schmidt, signed to a Capitals contract as an undrafted college free agent last week, picked up his second assist in as many games with a helper on Potulny’s power play strike.
Hershey has six games remaining this season, the next five of which are on the road. The Bears will visit Providence, Manchester and Portland next weekend.
The 33-28-3-6 Bears are tied with Norfolk for the eighth and final playoff berth in the AHL’s Eastern Conference standings.
By The Numbers – Green led the Caps with 26:37 in ice time … Ovechkin led the Caps with eight shots on goal … John Erskine paced the Caps with four hits … Alzner and Carlson paced the Caps with three blocked shots each … Backstrom won 13 of 20 draws (65%) … Radko Gudas led the Lightning with seven hits.