Alexander Ovechkin scored his 50th goal of the season and added two assists as the Caps exploded for three goals in the third period to break a 2-2 tie and beat the Tampa Bay Lightning, 5-2, on Thursday night in Tampa. Defenseman Mike Green had a big game as well scoring his 26th and 27th goals of the season and now is ahead of Sheldon Souray of Edmonton by seven goals to lead all NHL defensmen. The bad news is that late in the game #52 was pulled to the ice awkwardly by Lightning rookie Steven Stamkos and Green struggled to get to the bench, dangling his left arm. Green then left for the locker room with just over a minute to go in a scene that has to make Caps fans very nervous because any type of serious injury to #52 would likely end the Caps chances of winning a Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history. Washington is only 7-7 when Green has been out of the lineup this season. According to NHL “On the Fly” tonight, Green told reporters that he just had the wind knocked out of him but it looked worse and we’ll find out how serious it is over the next several days (the Caps are in Carolina on Saturday night).
Rookie goalie Simeon Varlamov continued to play well and he pushed his NHL record to 3-0 stopping 26 of 28 Tampa shots. Varlamov was very aggressive in goal continually challenging opponents by coming out of his cage to cut off the shooting angles. The two goals he gave up were on rebounds. The Caps are now 4-0 against Tampa Bay this season and have out scored them 21-9. Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau, who said afterwards “that we weren’t very good in the first two periods tonight,” is now 9-0 against the Lightning.
Here are some other thoughts and notes on the game tonight:
TO in the house: I did not like Ovechkin’s post 50 goal celebration. It looked staged and immediately reminded me of something Terrell Owens or Chad Johnson would do in the NFL. This was Ovechkin’s third 50 goal season and I know the Great #8 gets very excited when he or any other Cap scores but sometimes it is just best to pull an Emmitt Smith or Jamal Lewis and act like you’ve done this before. I’m sure Don Cherry will have a field day with this stunt, and deservedly so. Ovechkin did go +2 on the evening and is +3 in his last two games after a stretch of 12 contests where he was -8 overall.
Laing recalled: Forward Quintin Laing was recalled from Hershey today to replace forward Boyd Gordon, who fractured a finger and will be out two to three weeks. Gordon is a very good penalty killer but so is Laing, who specializes in blocking shots. Laing had a super solid game tonight drawing a penalty on Stamkos that led to the fourth Washington goal, was +1, had two hits, and blocked one shot in 10:19 of ice time.
Kozlov shines again: Viktor Kozlov, after a very strong game in Florida on Tuesday, was very good again on Thursday notching three assists and his play to set up Michael Nylander for the Caps fourth goal showed how strong he can be on the puck. If #25 can consistently play at this level the Caps become tougher to defend
Storming the Crease: While I didn’t think Lightning goalie Mike McKenna played very well (I’m not sure he is an NHL’er), the Caps did a good job of going to the net and it was nice to see Matt Bradley get rewarded for his hard work scoring Washington’s fifth goal with seven and a half minutes left to all but end this contest. Eric Fehr and Brooks Laich are two guys you can count on to go hard to the net of the opposition and even Nylander’s tally was the result of him going into the crease area. Green’s game winner happened because the Caps crashed the cage with Ovechkin storming the front of the net and the Lightning defenders collapsed on him allowing #52 to be wide open in the slot and fire it top shelf past McKenna.
Standings: The Caps are now 45-22-6 for 96 points and trail the Boston Bruins by only four points with nine games to go (Boston has a game in hand) for first place in the Eastern Conference. However, the New Jersey Devils are sitting on 95 points in third and have three games in hand on the Caps. The Caps will finish at least third and that will help them likely avoid the Flyers and Penguins in the first round, who could face each other and hopefully wear themselves out. I’m projecting Washington will face either Montreal or the Rangers in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Caps have a 15 point lead again in the Southeast Division, although the Hurricanes have a game in hand while Florida has two games in hand (but trail by 16 points).
Lineup Notes: John Erskine was the healthy scratch on defense tonight as Brian Pothier played his second game of the season, logging 18:43 of ice time. If Green is indeed hurt for Saturday’s game Washington could opt to call up defenseman Karl Alzner, who could play the rest of the games this regular season and only finish with 39 total. From a business side keeping Alzner under 40 games helps them long term as it delays unrestricted free agency for #27 by a year. In addition, due to salary cap constraints he could not have played at the NHL level all season. However, the Caps likely have enough room to bring him up now and there is no salary cap in the playoffs.
Washington won the face-off battle tonight, 32-24.