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For a team poised to run away with the Southeast Division for a second-consecutive season, early-season matches with would-be divisional challengers are among the better tests they're likely to find on the regular season schedule.
So far, so good in that regard, as the Caps ran their intradivisional record to 6-2-0 with a 6-0 win over the second-place Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday night. Throw out the no-show in Atlanta from a week ago (it happens), and the Caps have outscored their Southeast brethren by a combined score of 30-16. Yep, these proverbial four-point games are big (for now, at least), and the Caps have shown up big for most of them.
Ten more notes on the game:
- Alexander Semin probably won't be getting a holiday card from the Lightning this year. After his second-period natural hat trick, Semin had six goals and an assist in his last three periods of play against Tampa (and that includes a point-less first tonight). Semin was everywhere tonight - at even strength, on the power play and on the penalty kill - and absolutely obliterated a mini-slump in which he had no goals and just one assist in his previous four games.. And here's a great stat from the Caps: Semin has now has three hat tricks in the past 35 days, shattering the previous franchise record for the fastest trio of hatties set by Peter Bondra, who had with three in 60 days back in 1996.
- Before Semin took center stage outright tonight, Marcus Johansson was enjoying what may have been his best game as an NHLer (we've been saying that a lot lately, haven't we?), after registering his first career assist on a clean offensive-zone faceoff that teed up John Carlson for the game's first tally and then notching his second helper on a gorgeous pass on a 2-on-1 with Semin. It was MoJo's first career multi-point game, and surely won't be his last.
- Back to Carlson, his goal snapped a string of ten games without a marker, but his best efforts of the night came on the defensive side of the puck. He and partner Karl Alzner were tasked with shutting down Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis at even strength, and they did just that (the Lightning duo had just three shots on goal). Seen Stamkos? Not tonight.
- Not to be outdone by his junior countryman, Nicklas Backstrom threaded two brilliant passes to Semin (on goals two and three for the Russian winger), including one on a 5-on-3 that Tampa had to know was coming, but still couldn't stop.
- Also very much worth noting was the team defense, which held the Bolts to just 17 shots on goal for the game, seven of which came on the power play. The penalty kill was awesome, playing a perfect 8:49 (including 1:11 of 3-on-5 time), and the 17 shots on goal against were the fewest the Caps have allowed in a game since October 28 at Minnesota (which was the fewest they'd allowed since surrendering just 10 to Vancouver early in 20080-09).
- Moments before getting whistled for an awfully soft boarding call, John Erskine's stick got up into the mug of Mattias Ritola, ostensibly under Rule 60.1, which notes that "a player is permitted accidental contact on an opponent if the act is committed as a normal windup or follow through of a shooting motion." Where were these refs when these teams played seven years ago (boxscore)?
Semyon Varlamov was once again very solid and is now 2-0-0/1.00/.959 since returning from injury. After the nightmare scenario earlier in the week (one goalie hurt, one goalie coming off injury having played the prior two nights and one goalie playing somewhat poorly), Bruce Boudreau might have to pinch himself with what he's got now (for the moment, at least).
- No Fleischmann... no problem - the Caps are now 2-0-0 without Flash, and have outscored their opponents 10-2. Oh, and Eric Fehr - don't get too comfortable playing every game.
- Alzner played his 75th career NHL game tonight, and took two minor penalties, meaning 18% of his career penalty minutes came tonight.
- Don't look now, but Tom Poti now has two goals in his last three games for the first time since November of 2008 (when he scored in back-to-back games). With two goals in seven games, Poti is half-way to his 2009-10 total (a personal best with the Caps)... in 63 fewer games.
Next up for the Caps is another Southeast showdown - Sunday night against Carolina - with another chance to put some more distance between themselves and the rest of the Division. If they play like they did tonight, there's an awfully good chance those two points will be theirs.
Monday night in Jersey sure does feel like a distant memory now, doesn't it?