The Caps flew into the Sunshine State trailing the Tampa Bay Lightning by just a single point for the lead in the Southeast Division. They leave not only with first place packed tightly in the overhead compartment but a two-point cushion, as well, as they sweep the Florida teams for just the fifth time in twenty-two tries (and the first in over two years). And while at times it seemed they'd be lucky to escape with any points at all, the luck was for once on their side - you know what they say, you have to be good to be lucky...
Ten more notes on the game:
- It can't be easy for any goalie to jump into the middle of a game and settle in, especially a game with this much importance in the standings. Major credit to Braden Holtby for doing just that, stepping in when Michal Neuvirth couldn't go and making numerous game-saving stops en route to a twenty-one save performance - with a few in the shootout, to boot. Of course none were more beautiful than that last-minute stick save in the second period. I think Simon Gagne is still searching the ceiling after that one.
- Speaking of Neuvirth, he had a good start to the game in his own right before taking his spot on the bench, turning aside six of seven shots. More impressive is the fact that he did so conceivably after the injury that benched him occurred, a shot off the helmet in the first minute of play that appeared to shake him up at the time. Good for the Caps to sit him out, but it's a little disconcerting that he stayed in as long as he did if it was a head injury. Too many instances of that kind of thing these days.
- The goal that kicked off this offensive slugfest was the type of goal Caps fans were once very familiar with - a clean faceoff win, a shot from the point before the penalty killers had time to set up and a deflection in front. Would have been nice if it had come off the stick of a Washington player instead of Martin St. Louis and Sean Bergenheim, however...
- Right from the start the commentators gushed about how this was a playoff atmosphere, with tons of physicality and everyone getting in on the hitting...that might have been a bit of an exaggeration, but there was certainly intensity out there (especially compared to last night's game). Tampa's gameplan from the start was simple: hit everything that moves, and they did just that, although one might question the validity of the hometown scoring that gave Tampa 33 hits to Washington's 17.
- On nights where Alexander Semin decides to show up, we jokingly refer to him as "Good Sasha" - but that moniker seems almost insufficient to describe what #28 brought to the ice tonight. He was physical, he was engaged, he was feisty, he was defensively responsible and at the end of the night he was the guy who saved the Caps from yet another Roloson shutout with a Semin-esque wrister. It's been said many times, but ain't nobody in the League that shoots off-balance on one leg better than that guy. A thing of beauty for sure.
- Brooks Laich's evening might have been slightly less flashy than his linemate's but it was still a good one, as he fired five shots on net - second only to Semin's six - and drew two penalties by working hard along the boards. And that's ignoring the golden opportunity he had to end it in overtime...
- ...which followed an even more golden opportunity by his captain. That shift in the extra frame was one of Alex Ovechkin's best on the evening, as he picked off a pass from Ohlund for a semi-breakaway than outmuscled another Tampa defender along the boards to spring Laich. It capped off an evening for Ovie in which he, like most of his team, seemed to get stronger as it went on.
- Nicklas Backstrom started the evening looking like he had an extra jump in his step, and not only had three shots in the opening twenty but also won all seven faceoffs he took. A good sign that his hand was healing...that is, until he left the game late in the second and didn't return. The team has yet to confirm an injury or the severity of it, but Holtby did let slip that Backstrom had been shaking his hand at the bench. Heal up quick, Nicky...
- Early on in the game it seemed like the Bolts were having their way with the Capitals' centers in the faceoff dot (with Backstrom an early exception). By the end, however, the tide had turned and the Caps ended up on top, thanks in no small part to a dominant performance by Jason Arnott's 12-for-19 (63%).
- For some reason one of the storylines in this one was going to be penalties, and all eyes were on the refs to see how they'd call the game. The result? Five for the Caps, four for the Lightning, no dives, a power play for the Caps in overtime and two on Washington that are of the black-and-white variety. In other words, no harm, no foul, no surprise.
With a win tonight the Caps extend their current streak to five straight, the first time they've had at least five straight wins since October 30 - November 11. They also have their first two-point lead in the division since December 29 and appear to be slowly gathering momentum.
But there's still a lot of work to be done. The offense is still in disarray, the power play even more so - it's thanks to some stellar goaltending and timely goals that they're even in this position. The key now is to build off the momentum and try to expand their lead even more, while fixing the things that need to be fixed...and with fifteen games remaining until they really start to count, there's no better time than now to do so.