|Braden Holtby and the Caps celebrate a 2-1 shootout win over Tampa Bay. (C.Nichols/Caps News Network)|
They took a large step toward that goal last night, beating the team challenging for that title this season, the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1 in a shootout before a raucous crowd at the St. Pete Times Forum.
Washington tied the game at 14:28 of the third, as Alexander Semin, for the second time in as many games, played the hero. He took a pass from Dennis Wideman on the left wing and rifled a wicked wrist shot past Lightning goalie Dwayne Roloson (29 saves), who was once again stymieing the Caps, turning back everything thrown his way until that point.
The teams traded scoring chances as the time wound down, but neither could find the back of the net again, and as against the Panthers last night, would require overtime. Washington played their most productive hockey in the extra session, but despite a man-advantage could not find the winner and had to move to penalty shots.
Alex Ovechkin was the first shooter for either team and mad no mistake, deking Roloson and beating him backhanded. It was the only goal necessary, as Braden Holtby, called upon to relieve Michal Neuvirth, stoned all three Tampa shooters, including team captain Vincent Lecavalier on the final shot to secure the two-point night.
Neuvirth left the game after the first period, reportedly due to a collision with Lightning winger Adam Hall on one of the first shifts of the game, when Hall came through the crease and knocked Neuvirth's helmet from his head. He stayed in through the first period, but took a seat after the intermission.
Neuvirth was not the only Caps player to not finish the game. Center Nicklas Backstrom reportedly fell on the same hand he broke his thumb on and was held out as a precaution, according to reports after the game. The team hasn't released any information on either player other than they were being evaluated and would be day-to-day.
Despite ending the game missing their starting goalie and No. 1 center, the Caps took care of business. It wasn't pretty. But they got it done.
This was, in every essence, a playoff game. It was a tight-checking, shot-blocking, body-sacrificing divisional showdown. The traditional bully has been pushed around a little bit this season, but have found a way -- in the last five games, all one-goal wins -- to finally play a strong defensive game, the type where one goal will make the difference.
The win not only gives the Caps a two-point lead in the division, something they believe is their birthright, but also draws them to within two points of the top of the Eastern Conference, currently held by the imploding Philadelphia Flyers, losers of four in a row.
The Eastern Conference is tightening up, and with three home games coming up in the next week, the Caps might finally have a chance to solidify their playoff spot and insinuate themselves in the conference discussion.
Just don't expect many high-scoring games or blowouts. The Caps are playing playoff hockey now.