By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 12, 2010; D06
TAMPA -- On most nights, Tom Poti focuses on his role as the Washington Capitals' top shutdown defenseman and anchor of the team's penalty-kill unit. But in recent games, the versatile veteran has shown he's capable of pitching in at the other end of the ice, too.
Poti posted a three-point night Saturday in Atlanta, scoring his first regular season goal in 14 months and notching a pair of assists to help the Capitals to an 8-1 win. That outburst extended his point streak to five games, a span in which he has racked up seven points -- equal to his point total in the previous 31 games this season.
Poti can match his career-best point streak Tuesday against Tampa Bay at St. Pete Times Forum. The Capitals, meanwhile, will be looking to beat the struggling Lightning for the 13th consecutive time and win their fourth game in a row overall.
"He's being more assertive [and] he's shooting the puck," Coach Bruce Boudreau said of Poti after a brisk Monday practice at Ice Sports Forum in Brandon, Fla. "We saw it last year in the New York [Rangers playoff] series when he had a goal and three assists. He was easily the best player on the ice. And when he wants to be, he can be that again."
Although the Capitals lead the league with 3.61 goals per game, the team has received fewer goals (15) from their defense than any team in the top five. Some of that has to do with Boudreau's power play, which utilizes four forwards and a lone defenseman, Mike Green, on the first unit. But Boudreau believes his other blue liners are capable of producing more points at even strength. So, during a meeting in Los Angeles earlier this month, he implored the group to join the rush more often and shoot the puck "to score."
"A lot of times we've been shooting to get tips or through screens," Poti said. "But Bruce said he wants us to bury our head and shoot, to look for the shot first, instead of looking to pass first and shoot second."
The 32-year-old Worcester, Mass., native has taken that talk to heart.
On a power play late in Saturday's rout, Poti ended his goal drought when he sneaked backdoor and one-timed a crossing pass from Alexander Semin past Ondrej Pavelec. Earlier in the game, Poti was credited with setting up the Capitals' first goal after Mike Knuble redirected his shot from point into the net. Poti took three shots in Atlanta, marking only the fourth time this season he's taken three or more in a game.
"He's doing a lot of great things that he's capable of doing, that maybe he forgot he was capable of doing," Boudreau said.
Poti's recent contributions in the offensive end shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. Before signing with the Capitals in July 2007, he amassed 32 or more points in a season four times and took 100 or more shots in seven different seasons. In Washington, though, his role has mostly been to bottle up the opposing team's top forwards and kill penalties.
"I've accepted a different role here, a role that has challenged me," he said.
Poti's role hasn't changed the past five games. He's simply expanded it to include chipping in offensively when the opportunity is there.
"When he's on his game, we win," Boudreau said. "He does a great job. I love his demeanor and his calmness and his experience.
"Offense from him," the coach added, "is a bonus."
Interestingly, the uptick in Poti's participation in the offensive end has coincided with the team naming him a full-time alternate. He had been the third alternate behind Alex Ovechkin and Knuble, but when Ovechkin replaced Chris Clark as team captain last week, the 'A' on Poti's jersey became permanent.
"It's an honor to wear a letter in this league and to be recognized by your coaches as a leader," he said. "It's something special. You take pride in that and you want to go out and prove that you've earned it and that you deserve it."
Capitals notes: Defenseman John Erskine did not practice Monday and is "questionable" to face the Lightning, two days after leaving Saturday's game in the third period with what the team is calling an "upper-body injury." If Erskine does not play, seldom-used swingman Tyler Sloan will suit up for the first time in five games. . . . Goaltender Semyon Varlamov, who is recovering from a groin-muscle strain and a sprained right knee, returned to the ice Monday at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. He skated for about 45 minutes and faced shots from strength and conditioning coach Mark Nemish. He has not played since suffering an injury during the team's last visit to Tampa on Dec. 7.