Is there any doubt about who rules the Southeast Division? The Washington Capitals hosted the Tampa Bay Lightning, who were riding a five game winning streak and had closed within four points of the 1st place Caps, and promptly buried them, 6-0, behind Alexander Semin’s third hat trick of the season, and second in as many tilts against the Bolts. Semyon Varlamov made 17 saves for his third career regular season shutout and Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Marcus Johansson had two assists apiece in this white washing of Steve Stamkos and company. The Caps are now 16-6-2 and lead the Southeast Division by six points over the Bolts, who have a game in hand. They also lead the Eastern Conference over the Philadelphia Flyers by a point.
Let’s get to the highlights, quotes, and analysis from a 60 minute Capitals effort:
– Goaltending and special teams were the big difference in this contest. Tampa’s netminding duo of Mike Smith and Dan Ellis are average, at best, and both of them saw the ice in this tilt. After Johansson cleanly won an offensive zone draw against Stamkos, John Carlson lasered one into the cage to make it 1-0 just 3:09 into the contest, a lead Washington would take to the dressing room. But Karl Alzner took an uncharasterically bad penalty for interference against Steve Downie with one second left in that stanza and that set Tampa up for the first of two early second period power plays. That is where the game really turned for the Caps as they would kill both of those thanks to some great work by Boyd Gordon, Semin, and the entire PK unit. In addition, they did a super job of not letting Stamkos get set up for his vicious one timer from the left wing circle.
– Shortly after the Caps thwarted those two Bolts power plays, Smith couldn’t handle a point shot from John Erskine and it trickled by the shaky net minder to make it 2-0. That goal definitely hurt the Lightning, still they pressed on and opened the game up. That is where they got burnt as Semin made a nice back check to help Washington take the puck away from Tampa and he and Johansson went 2 on 1 the other way. MJ90 then made a gorgeous pass to #28, who rammed it home on the one-timer for his first marker of the night.
– Then Semin would complete his natural hat trick in just 4:29 with two power play tallies (fastest NHL natural hat trick since Bobby Ryan of Anaheim on 1/9/2009; h/t @capsmedia). With Mattias Ritola in the box for tripping, Ovechkin had his point shot blocked but he gathered in the biscuit and slid it over to Backstrom in the right wing circle. #19 then went cross ice to Semin who one-timed another by Smith to end his evening. Stamkos, who was downright awful on Friday, was called for interference and then Mattias Ohlund tripped Oveckhin in the neutral zone to give Washington a 5 on 3. It took only 19 seconds to connect as Ovechkin slid the puck to Backstrom, who then made a sweet cross crease pass to Semin. #28 had the puck almost on the goal line but rifled it top shelf on a sliding Ellis. It was an amazing display of skill by both Backstrom and Semin to put Washington up 5-0 and effectively end the contest at 11:21 of period two.
– Overall the Caps would go 2 for 4 on the power play while they held the Lightning to no goals in five attempts. Even after yielding those tallies to the Caps the Lightning are still killing penalties at an 87% clip, tied for 3rd in the league. They are also fifth in the NHL with the power play at 24%. So the outstanding special teams performance by Washington came against a strong opponent in those categories. The Caps are 4th in the NHL at 24.1% with an advantage and their much improved shorthanded unit is now up to eighth in the league at 84.3%.
“We played good defensively. Power play works good. PK [penalty kill] did an unbelievable job. I think we play a good 60 solid minutes,” said Ovechkin on the Caps keys to the victory.
“I don’t know if it was perfect, but it’s as good as we’ve played all year. When you score a couple on the power play and you kill a 5-on-3, I thought it was a good game by us,” said Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau on the effort by his club, who totally dominated the Lightning in all facets of the game.
– Varlamov’s best save of night was early in the contest when Martin St. Louis had a chance in the slot after moving around Alzner. After that he didn’t have to do a whole lot in this one as Boudreau said afterwards that his team was determined to play a very good game. But a team’s good play or bad play is often based on the confidence they have in their goaltender, as anyone who has played this great sport will tell you. I think it is no coincidence that their two worst games of the season, in Atlanta and New Jersey, came with rookie goalie Braden Holtby struggling in the cage early on while some of their better contests, such as the last two tilts, have been with Varlamov, their #1 goalie, between the pipes.
“When you get some goals against you early it takes the wind out of your sails some time. I think the guys were pissed. They were ticked off, we took a lot of flak this week and that is a proud bunch in there. The week is not over yet but they knew they were better than what they showed and they knew they were better than what people were saying about us. So I think they dug deep and we’ll try to dig deep again on Sunday,” said the 2007-08 Jack Adams award winning bench boss on the mind set of his club since losing three in a row.
– Carlson and Alzner continue to shine as a defensive pair and Boudreau spoke glowingly of the two young defenseman for their efforts on shutting down the Stamkos-St. Louis-Downie line. Tom Poti, in just his second contest back from injury, added a goal as well and was superb all evening.
“[Carlson] and Alzner, for a 21 year old guy and 22, having the duty of shutting down that line did a real good job, and Carly adds that offensive element as well. I thought he was at his best tonight,” started Boudreau on his two rookie defensemen, “I was really impressed with Tom, just his demeanor and you could tell his experience back there when he got the puck he made the right plays he did the right things with it. We missed him [while he was out],” finished Boudreau on #3.
– The 20 year old Johansson continues to get better and his play is making Tomas Fleischmann more expendable. MJ90 played a big role on the first and third goals and overall he logged 12:31 of ice time, including 1:53 on the power play (2nd unit). He is a very good skater and just needs to keep improving his play along the boards, particularly behind the net where he gets taken off of the puck fairly easily when he doesn’t move his feet. As for #14, he was scratched today with the return of Mike Knuble (fractured jaw). Fleischmann has really struggled this year and part of his problem is his lack of physical play. He has not been finishing his checks on the forecheck at all and when opposing defenseman feel no threat, it is much easier for them to clear their own end.
– We’ve blogged in the past about the clean hit and then the subsequent fight that occurs. Tonight Erskine made a good solid shoulder check on Nate Thompson and #44 went awkwardly into the boards and stayed down. The zebras, who did a great job on Friday night, did not call a penalty. However, a few minutes later the Bolts Ryan Malone decided to take exception to the hit on his teammate and went after #4. Erskine proceeded to pummel the former Penguins forward. Erskine, who was drafted in 1998 by Craig Button’s Dallas Stars scouting staff in the 2nd round (39th overall), is “pretty tough” as an NHL scouting director told me last season.
Notes: The Caps held Tampa to their lowest shot total of the season (17)…Washington is now a league best 11-1-1 at home…Semin is second in the NHL in goals to Stamkos (21 to 17)…the Capitals are 11-0 when #28 scores a goal and 12-1-2 when he registers a point or more….Brian Fahey, who was paired with Erskine, had his first NHL point (an assist) in 11:21 of ice time in his best game as a Capital…the Caps won the faceoff battle, 33-27 and have been at 50% or better for 11 straight games (last season their longest such streak was seven games)…Next up for the Caps are the Carolina Hurricanes at the Verizon Center at 5pm on Sunday…down on the farm the Hershey Bears buried the Syracuse Crunch on the road, 5-1. Andrew Gordon had two goals and was the game’s number one star while Mathieu Perreault added a tally and two assists. Dany Sabourin won in Syracuse for the third straight time in three tries this season. The Bears host Adirondack at 7pm on Saturday at the Giant Center.