By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 21, 2010; D01
TAMPA -- It wasn't long before Alex Ovechkin was back doing what he does best.
The two-time MVP scored the eventual game-winner minutes into his return from a suspension Saturday night at St. Pete Times Forum, and José Theodore shut down the Tampa Bay Lightning attack in a 3-1 victory for the Washington Capitals.
"It's nice to go back and play hockey and score goals," Ovechkin said. "It was good."
Ovechkin's goal was his 45th and moved him into a tie atop the leaders with Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. With 10 games remaining in the regular season, Ovechkin also leads the league in points (97) and plus-minus rating (plus 42), among a host of other statistical categories, despite missing 10 games because of injury and suspension.
Like everyone else on the Capitals' bench, Coach Bruce Boudreau breathed a deep sigh of relief after Ovechkin scored on a breakaway that put the Capitals ahead for good, 2-1, midway through the first period.
"I thought he was a little tentative early," Boudreau said of his star winger. "Like he was afraid [and had a] 'I don't want to get into trouble' type [attitude]. But he got the winning goal, and I thought in the third period he had a couple of good hits. So he's getting back to normal."
Ovechkin, though, had to share the spotlight with Theodore, who edged him for first star honors. Theodore made 33 saves, including all 21 he faced in the second and third periods.
"He's been like this since January 1," Boudreau said. "He's playing so good. I'm not naming anyone anything, but I mean, he's certainly making a great case for himself" to be named the starter in the playoffs.
Theodore, who is 16-0-2 since Jan. 13, added: "They had some chances in tight, saves you don't really notice it as much, like a little tip or a screen. But I think my positioning was good tonight, and I was able to challenge and play the way I like to play."
Alexander Semin and Tomas Fleischmann also scored for Washington, which will return from the four-game trip with a 3-0-1 record and an almost insurmountable 16-point lead over the Penguins in the Eastern Conference. The free-falling Lightning, meantime, lost its fourth straight and remained six points out of a playoff spot.
Semin clinched the win when he scored at 7 minutes 20 seconds of the third period to put the Capitals ahead 3-1. Semin, who carries one of the longest sticks on the team, used that long reach to steer a rebound past Antero Niittymaki (25 saves).
The big story line, though, was the return of No. 8, who had hundreds of red-clad supporters in the stands, and how he would fare after two games of forced exile.
The short answer? Well.
Ovechkin finished with a game-high seven shots on goal (not including three that missed the net and three that were blocked) in 22 minutes 52 seconds of ice time.
"It's not like we eased him back in," Boudreau said.
Almost as important was the fact that Ovechkin's smile, and sense of humor, also returned Saturday.
"Vacation is over," he cracked before the game. "It's nice to have days off like that, but it's too expensive to watch two games. It's over, and [I'm] refreshed. I feel good."
Because of a pair of two-game suspensions, Ovechkin has forfeited more than $335,000 of his $9 million salary this season. His reputation, in the eyes of some, also has taken a hit. But Ovechkin remained defiant, saying he has no plans to change his aggressive, hard-hitting style of play.
"Hockey is a physical game," he said. "I don't want to go and play differently. For me it's just a suspension. I don't want to change nothing."
And nothing really did.
After the teams exchanged goals scored by Fleischmann and Vincent Lecavalier, Ovechkin put the Capitals ahead midway through a first period in which Washington was outshot, 13-4.
Sensing an opportunity, Ovechkin turned up ice as Nicklas Backstrom corralled the puck deep in the Washington end. Backstrom then sent a pass across the ice, off the boards and right onto Ovechkin's stick. After a little shimmy on the way to the net, the 24-year-old Russian lifted a forehander over a sprawled Niittymaki to give the Capitals all they would need.
"There were some guys between me and Alex, so it was my only option," Backstrom said of the highlight-reel pass. "I was thinking right away to pass it through the boards."
Ovechkin was more succinct: "He's the top passer in the league."
Capitals notes: Center Boyd Gordon missed his second game with a back strain, but could be ready to return on Wednesday, according to General Manager George McPhee. . . .
Minor league Hershey Bears goalie Michal Neuvirth left Friday's game with a lower body injury and is day-to-day.