THE RESULTS: The Tampa Bay Lightning put a Matt Bradley quote about this being the Washington Capitals' biggest game of the year up on their white board in their dressing room in motivation for last night's big Southeast Division showdown.
It didn't help much.
The Caps roared out to a 3-1 lead mid-way through the second period, and added two more goals in the third to inch a little closer to the division lead with a 5-2 win before over 20,000 at the St. Pete Times Forum.
Better yet, the Caps top line of Alex Ovechkin, Nick Backstrom and Jason Chimera combined for four of the five goals, and Brooks Laich knocked in the other, just his second goal in his last 20 games.
Ovechkin's goal came on the power play, the first time he's gotten a marker with the extra man since he got two against Calgary Oct. 30, a span of 40 games. Unreal.
The win is welcome relief from the struggles of the offense so far in 2011. The Caps had scored just three goals in their last three contests, and five goals are the highest total so far in the new year.
Bradley's remark might have been good bulletin board material, but make no mistake, this was a very big win for the Caps. It pulls them within three of division-leading Tampa Bay, who is also second in the Eastern Conference.
Lest no one convince you otherwise, the Capitals still see the Southeast as their turf, and winning the division is still a big deal to them, especially now that all five of the teams have a legitimate shot of making the second season.
The Caps even tried sending messages, wtih Matt Bradley and Matt Hendricks both fighting in the first period, trying to set the tone.
It's also a big deal considering Washington's next opponent: the Pittsburgh Penguins on Super Bowl Sunday. It will be much easier to prepare for a marquee matchup without being pestered for 48 hours about falling to a division opponent on the road.
The Caps have spent all season mixing multiple rookies in and out of the lineup in all phases of the game. They've also dealt with long-term injuries to several veterans. They've been scratching their heads trying to figure out "What's Wrong with the Washington Capitals."
They've needed their best players to play like it, and that's been missing for the most part since the first of Decemeber.
Last night was the first time in a long time that this team looked like itself: pressuring on the forecheck, getting quality shots on goal, following up those shots with rebound attempts, and their best players playing like it.
Dedicated. Involved. Having fun.
How far they'll go the rest of the way depends on their willingness to following that formula.
THE GOOD: Other than the obvious goodness of Ovi, Nicky and Brooks all lighting the lamp, the Caps also had a very strong night in the dot, winning 60 percent of the faceoffs. Of particular note: Marcus Johansson (7-of-8), Jay Beagle (7-of-8) and David Steckel (6-of-7).
THE BAD: No shots on goal from the second or third line centers, Johansson and Mathieu Perreault.
THE UGLY: Steve Downie. That's all.
THE STATS: Nicklas Backstrom (13) from Alex Ovechkin (33) and Mike Green (16) at 9:09 of 1st. Brooks Laich (10) from Mathieu Perreault (5) and Jay Beagle (1) at 6:38 of 2nd. Alex Ovechkin (20) from Nicklas Backstrom (35) and John Carlson (17) at 8:25 of 2nd (PP). Nicklas Backstrom (14) from Alex Ovechkin (34) and Jason Chimera (11) at 12:22 of 3rd. Jason Chimera (8) from Alex Ovechkin (35) and Nicklas Backstrom (36) at 19:22 of 3rd (EN).
NEXT GAME: Super Sunday at 2:00 pm v. Pittsburgh Penguins at Verizon Center
CAPS NEWS NETWORK THREE STARS
3. Semyon Varlamov. Only called on to face 25 shots, but made several key saves in the third before the insurance goals that sealed it.
2. Alex Ovechkin. Goal. Three assists. Ten shots on goal, four hits. Looks like the All-Star Game loosened him up a little. Happy Ovi = Good Ovi.
1. Nick Backstrom. Two goals, two assists, five shots, 52% on draws. Where has this guy been?