By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 1, 2010; D01
For much of Sunday's matinee, Alex Ovechkin appeared to be a step off his game. Shots he normally puts on net were blocked. Others he normally buries sailed wide. Just before the first intermission, he tripped and fell without any help from an opposing player.
But late in the third period, with the outcome in doubt and a historic opportunity for the Washington Capitals within their grasp, Ovechkin did what two-time MVPs are supposed to: He capped a dominant shift with the decisive goal in a 3-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning at Verizon Center.
The Capitals matched a 26-year-old franchise record of 10 consecutive wins with the victory and can establish a new mark Tuesday in Boston against the struggling Bruins. The NHL record for consecutive wins is 17, set by the 1992-93 Pittsburgh Penguins.
"My emotions are mellow," Coach Bruce Boudreau said of the milestone. "The number 10 is pretty tough to get to, and I told the guys, "You might go your whole career without getting it again, so enjoy it."
And, fittingly, they have their captain to thank.
After second-period goals from Nicklas Backstrom and Brooks Laich, the Capitals coughed up a 2-0 lead in part because of penalty trouble in the third period.
Martin St. Louis redirected a point shot by Kurtis Foster past José Theodore (25 saves) with 15 minutes remaining. Then, after avoiding the penalty box for more than 45 minutes, the Capitals took two in succession, and Steven Stamkos evened the score with 12 minutes 18 seconds left on the clock.
"Once they got the two goals, it got everyone's blood going again," Boudreau said, referring to the disjointed action on the ice and quieter-than-normal capacity crowd.
It especially got Ovechkin's blood going. With 6:26 remaining, Ovechkin circled, took a pass from Backstrom and snapped his shot past Mike Smith's blocker to restore the Capitals' lead. Ovechkin attempted 19 shots; 11 were blocked; five were stopped by Smith; two missed everything; one found the net. He also moved past Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby into second place in goals with his 35th.
"It was a good shift by Alex and his linemates," Boudreau said. "I thought they were contained pretty well all night long. But you could see on that shift they said, 'Okay, let's do something.' "
Ovechkin added: "We were frustrated as to how we started the third period. They scored two. But we didn't give up. It's fun when you score the game winning goal with [about six] minutes left in the game. We don't want to stop. We want to keep winning and playing well."
Whether they accomplished the latter Sunday is debatable. But as Laich said, finding a way to win was encouraging.
"I think a sign of a very good hockey team is when they can win when they're not at their best," Laich said, "and tonight I think we did that."
Asked what he has appreciated most during the winning streak, Boudreau pointed to the performance of the penalty-kill unit (it has yielded more than one power play goal only once and shut out opponents five times) and limiting other teams' goal totals (2.1 goals per game).
"I think when you're shoring up your defensive game, you're preparing for the way you need to play to win," down the stretch and in the playoffs, Boudreau said. "And it hasn't really hurt the offensive game."
And the Capitals did it without Mike Green, their ice-time leader and the league's leading scorer among defensemen. He sat out the first game of a three-game suspension, forcing Boudreau to shuffle a lineup that he has kept largely intact during the streak. Green was replaced on the top pairing by spare defenseman Tyler Sloan, while Brendan Morrison replaced Green at the point on the power play.
Despite not having Green, the Capitals' league-leading power play did not misfire. With former Washington captain Jeff Halpern in the penalty box for tripping moments into the second period, the Capitals broke a scoreless tie on Backstrom's career-best 23rd goal.
The sneaky Swedish center slipped between two Lightning players and tapped a puck between Smith's pads that dribbled over the goal line at 57 seconds.
About 12 minutes later, Laich extended the Capitals' lead to 2-0 when he fired the puck off defenseman Victor Hedman's skates past Smith. Hedman had blocked Semin's shot, but Laich located the puck before he did. Laich has five goals in his past eight games.
The two-goal cushion, however, didn't last.
"When you're used to winning, you find ways to win," Boudreau said. "They found a way to win even though it wasn't our best game offensively. There were a bunch of guys who were a little off tonight."
Capitals notes: Goaltender Michael Neuvirth was reassigned to Hershey of the American Hockey League so he'll be eligible to suit up for the Bears during the Olympic break. To be eligible, Neuvirth cannot appear in more than 16 of the Capitals' final 20 games before the break. Rookie Braden Holtby was recalled to replace Neuvirth. . . .
With their 13th win in January, the Capitals set a franchise record for wins in a month. . . .
Goaltender Semyon Varlamov's said his sprained right knee continues to improve. "Very, very good," he said when asked about his informal practice Sunday morning. "Yes, best." He is expected to make at least one start in Hershey this week before returning to Washington.