By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 10, 2009
TAMPA, April 9 -- Whether this season's Washington Capitals are the best in franchise history can be debated. But this much cannot: They will be the Eastern Conference's second seed in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Sparked by Brooks Laich's two goals at St. Pete Times Forum on Thursday night, the Capitals beat the 29th-ranked Tampa Bay Lightning, 4-2, and will host either the Montreal Canadiens or the New York Rangers in the first round, which begins next week.
The Capitals' victory, their fifth in the past six games (5-0-1), also established a franchise record for points with 108 and tied the team mark for wins with 50. Both records had been held by the 1985-86 team.
"I wouldn't say we're the best team [in franchise] history," said Laich, whose 22 goals are a career best. "It's nice to get the 108 points, but we're going to judge ourselves by what we do in the second season, in the playoffs."
Washington can break the wins record in its regular season finale on Saturday night against the Florida Panthers in Sunrise, Fla. The Panthers have been eliminated from the playoffs.
"I think you have got to rank this team up there," Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "We're right there. It's quite an accomplishment in this day in age with the salary cap. It's a good record to have."
The only thing that didn't go as planned for the Capitals involved Alex Ovechkin, whose bid to win a second straight scoring title took a hit. The reigning MVP was held without a point for the first time in 10 games, while points leader Evgeni Malkin notched a pair of assists in the Pittsburgh Penguins' 6-1 win over the NHL-worst New York Islanders, pushing his lead to 112-108. Both players have one game remaining.
Thursday night, though, was mostly about the Capitals' achievements as a team. With an 11th straight victory over the Lightning, Washington also matched a franchise record for consecutive wins over an opponent (the Capitals beat the Islanders 11 times in a row from 1998 to 2000.
"There have been a lot of great teams in this franchise's history," said José Theodore, who rebounded from yielding a goal on the first shot of the game to record 22 saves and his 32nd win in his 500th game. "This year, right off the bat, we proved to everybody that we were ready to rise to the challenge."
After falling behind on the game's opening shift, the Capitals scored the game's next three goals to take control.
Just 36 seconds in, Zenon Konopka made a diving swipe at a deflected puck in the Capitals' zone, sending it into the slot to a cutting Steven Stamkos. The Lightning rookie one-timed the puck past Theodore at :36, putting Tampa Bay ahead 1-0 on its first shot of the game. Stamkos's goal was his 22nd of the season, breaking Brad Richards's franchise record for goals by a rookie.
Despite a lineup that was missing 10 regulars, including Vinny Lecavalier (wrist surgery) and Ryan Malone (broken hand), the Lightning still managed to outplay the Capitals early and at one point was out-shooting them, 11-1. But the Capitals were awarded a five-one-three power play midway through the first period and Laich capitalized, jamming a rebound past Karri Ramo to even the score at 1.
They never looked back. Laich's second goal put the Capitals ahead 2-1 at 5:37 of the second period, and then only 31 seconds later, David Steckel's first goal in 23 games stretched the Capitals' lead to 3-1. Matt Bradley's first assist in 18 games set up the goal.
The Lightning cut the deficit to 3-2 with 7:07 left when Paul Szczechura's point shot hit Matt Pettinger's skate and eluded Theodore. But Mike Green added an empty-net goal with 4.8 seconds left to provide the final margin.
"We're proud of our accomplishment, but we haven't done nothing yet," said Green, who also had two assists. "We're just having fun playing hockey, but one day we'll look back. Maybe [the 108 points] will never happen again."
Capitals Notes: Fenway Park could be the site of next year's Winter Classic and the Capitals are among the teams being considered as the Bruins' opponent, according to separate reports in the Boston Herald and Boston Globe. Two sources acknowledged that Washington has expressed interest in participating in the Jan. 1 game, but the Capitals have not been informed by the NHL that they are finalists. The NHL has not made any announcements regarding the game. . . . Don Koharski refereed his final game and will retire after 32 years. . . . Defenseman Tom Poti (groin) and left wing Donald Brashear (knee) were out.