By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
TAMPA -- Alex Ovechkin carried the Washington Capitals to their sixth straight victory Monday night. But, more important, he lifted them to the top spot in the NHL standings.
Ovechkin made up for lost time with two goals, and Semyon Varlamov and Tomas Fleischmann also played significant roles in a record-setting 3-0 victory over the skidding Tampa Bay Lightning that vaulted the Capitals past the idle San Jose Sharks and into first place overall.
"It's 30 games in, but we want to be there," Ovechkin said of Washington's one-point lead on the Sharks. "If you're there, you have to continue the way you're playing and be the same team we were today."
As good as Ovechkin was, he had to share the spotlight with Varlamov, who recorded his second regular season shutout and improved his record to 12-1-2 with a 26-save performance. Eric Fehr scored Washington's other goal, while Fleischmann and Alexander Semin each notched a pair of assists in a businesslike performance at St. Pete Times Forum.
"He's a good goaltender," Boudreau said of Varlamov. "The world will start to get to know him as the season progresses. He's going to be a special athlete. . . . He's a pretty hard goalie to beat because he's so quick."
The rookie's performance also helped the Capitals establish a new mark for dominance: the win was their 12th in a row over the Lighting, a new franchise record for consecutive wins over a single opponent. (Washington beat the New York Islanders 11 straight times from 1998-2000.)
But the record everyone was talking about after the game, though, was 19-5-6: the best 30-game start in franchise history. The Capitals have amassed 44 points in those contests; San Jose, which was idle, has 43 in 31 games.
"I'm hoping we're there at 82 games," Boudreau said. "It's a quite a good thing especially considering all the travel we've had to do the past month."
To get there, though, the Capitals had to overcome a sluggish start before a sparse announced crowd of 12,400.
After mustering only two shots on three power plays in the first period, Ovechkin and the Washington offense got going in the second period.
The 24-year-old opened the scoring with his 19th goal in 22 games moments after Varlamov made a highlight-worthy pad stop on Lightning captain Vincent Lecavalier.
Semin picked off Stephane Veilleux's careless pass in the neutral zone, then raced into the Lightning zone flanked by Ovechkin. Semin fed a crossing pass to his linemate, and Ovechkin rifled it past Mike Smith (31 saves) before the goalie could get across the crease at 7:39.
"He was a little rusty and he wasn't moving his legs as most of us weren't in the first period," Boudreau said. "When we started moving our legs, we started getting chances to score."
About five minutes later, Fehr jammed in a loose puck to make it 2-0. Fleischmann's pass deflected off Victor Hedman's stick and landed in the crease, where Fehr corralled the puck and fired it past Smith. The goal was Fehr's eighth of the season and fifth in the past six games.
"I saw the puck the whole way," Fehr said. "I just waited for it and then took a whack at it."
Ovechkin's 20th goal gave the Capitals a comfortable lead in the waning moments of the second period. With Lecavalier in the penalty box for tripping Ovechkin, Fleischmann sent a shot off the post. The ricochet came to Ovechkin, and though he didn't get all of it, he got enough of his stick on the puck to push is slowly across the goal line and send the game into the third period with Washington up 3-0.
The Capitals' defense clamped down in the third period, limiting the Lightning to five shots.
"I've tried to tell a lot of people that our defense is a lot better than they think it is," Boudreau said. "We believe we've got an awful lot of capable NHL defensemen, and they played a great game tonight."
Capitals notes: Karl Alzner was reassigned to the minor league Hershey Bears after five games with Washington so the team could make room for Shaone Morrisonn, who returned to the lineup after missing eight games with a concussion. Alzner had played well, Boudreau said, but the 21-year-old is the only defenseman who doesn't have to clear waivers to be demoted.