The Capitals and Lightning battled for first place in the Southeast Division on Tuesday. Just about halfway through the season and both teams had 51 points and compare well to each other in prominent statistical categories. After Tuesday is there any doubt that Tampa Bay and Washington will battle for the division all the way down to the last week of the regular season?
It was Tampa that would triumph on Tuesday, taking home a 1-0 victory on a Martin St. Louis goal 2:54 into overtime at Verizon Center. The teams played a scoreless three periods, matching each other surge for surge, penalty for penalty, shot for shot. It was not playoff hockey but it was as close to the feel of postseason play that opponents can get in the first week of January.
“Half way through the game you could tell that it was one of those games that might be going to overtime,” St. Louis said. “The whole game both teams had their surges. Both goalies were tremendous and we needed extra time and we just, you know, got a bounce and made something with it.”
The backbreaker came Pavel Kubina dug the puck off the rush for a drop pass from the goal line to the stick of Vincent Lecavalier who fired a wrist shot on Washington goaltender Semyon Varlamov that he deflected straight back into the slot … where St. Louis was charging. One-timer towards the open net as Varlamov tried to butterfly back to the crease and an exclamation point was put on a great night of hockey.
Just not for the Caps.
“There was not a lot of action in terms of goals but, yeah, it was fun to play,” Washington defenseman Karl Alzner said. “It is frustrating to play the way we did, pretty good defensively, and lose in overtime.”
St. Louis saw the play developing in front of him and was hoping to have the chance to put it to bed.
“Kind of a quick out of their zone and had to hustle to stay onside,” St. Louis said. “I felt like we had a chance there to and we might make a play and there was a chance for a second opportunity. I could go for a changer but there was nobody driving.”
Except for that one snafu, Varlamov was terrific. Coming off being named the NHL First Star Of The Week, he had 37 saves, fighting off a Tampa attack that features the most prolific point-scorer in the league in budding superstar Steven Stamkos (15:33 time on ice, four shots, two attempts block, one miss) along with St. Louis, Lecavalier and Simon Gagne.
“It seems like I can’t say enough about him,” Capitals’ defenseman John Carlson said. “He is making us feel really good about ourselves on the back end and that is important, especially coming off that losing streak that we had.”
The problem for Varlamov was that the Lightning have a new goaltender. Dwayne Roloson was traded to Tampa Back from the Islanders last weekend and made his first start for the Lightning on Tuesday.
And pitched a shutout.
“I thought that both goalies made a big difference tonight,” St. Louis said. “With his first game here was good with that kind of start but their guy was pretty good too.”
Roloson is so new to the Lightning that he did not even have Tampa Bay equipment and was forced to wear his Islanders helmet and pads. It was an odd sight but he said after the game that it does not really matter what he wears, he was just trying to help his new team win.
“We made that trade because we thought he would improve our team and tonight he did everything he could do to make that happen. I’m happy for him,” Tampa coach Guy Boucher said.
Halfway through the season the mentality has changed for these teams. Early in the season it was easy to look at Tampa Bay and say that they looked like a younger version (if that is possible ) of the Caps. They have their own version of Ovechkin in Stamkos, a couple significant playmakers to put around him and little to no defense or goaltending to go with the package. It was a skill game, something that Boucher admitted that the Lightning did not want to get into again after being dropped by Washington the last two times at Verizon Center this year by a combined score of 12-3.
“We came in here and didn’t try to run and gun it,” Boucher said. “The last two times we came in here we were trying to have more skill than their skill guys and play their game — we wanted a 0-0 game. I didn’t necessarily expect a 0-0 game but we want a 0-0 mentality game and that’s what we got.”
The problem for Washington is that the Caps have been having a 0-0 mentality for a while now as well. Whether they want to or not. That is not to say that they are less focused on scoring and more on defense, it is just that they have not been scoring nearly as much recently as they are historically capable of.
“I think we could’ve gotten more [scoring chances] had we gone to the net a little harder,” Washington coach Bruce Boudreau said. “We would’ve scored goals. We’re not scoring goals right now. Thank god we’re getting good goaltending and playing defense.”
The Capitals are averaging two goals per game over their last 12 games, three of which they were shutout. There have not been many chants of “We Want Wings” recently (referring, of course, to the free wings fans get if the Caps score five goals in a game at Verizon). Over that stretch Washington has given up 27 goals though that does include the 7-0 abomination defeat to the Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 12. Over the last nine games, the Caps have only allowed 14 goals, good for 1.55 average against. That will work. Well, it will work when the team is scoring.
“You know, we have to play a little bit better. If we can’t score one goal we are not giving ourselves a very good chance to win,” Carlson said.
It will be interesting to see how Boudreau responds to this. For the first part of the year the Capitals were scoring goals but allowing teams to stay in the game when their counter-attack defense broke down. Now, the Caps cannot score and teams are staying in the game by default. If there is a happy medium, Boudreau would love to find it.
Still, it is only the midpoint of the year. The Capitals and the Lightning have three more games against each other before the playoffs start and 30-something against everybody else. There is time to work some things out, on both sides of the rivalry.
“There is a lot of hockey left,” St. Louis said. “There always is.”