By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 27, 2010; 1:03 AM
So often this season when the Washington Capitals would create a lead in the first half of a game, they couldn't find a way to rub out an opponent completely. But in a Friday evening showdown with the Southeast Division rival Tampa Bay Lightning, a determined defensive stand combined with a hat trick by Alexander Semin helped the Capitals discover their killer instinct.
Semin tallied a natural, or uninterrupted, hat trick in 4 minutes 29 seconds of the second period to highlight an impressive 6-0 Washington win. It was Semin's third three-goal performance in just 35 days and second against the formerly white-hot Lightning, which saw its five-game winning streak come to an end.
Collectively, the Capitals played one of their most stringent games defensively and allowed the Lightning, which entered the contest averaging more than 32 shots per outing, only 11 shots through the first 40 minutes and 17 attempts for the game.
"I don't know if it was perfect, but it was as good as we've played all year," Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "We've gotten to that 2-0 stage and 3-1 stage and we haven't been able to get that goal that puts you over the hump, and today we did. I thought we stifled them really well after that so they didn't get a chance to come back."
Washington's defensive fortitude was apparent early as several blue-liners played arguably their best games of the season and helped Semyon Varlamov post his third career regular season shutout with 17 saves.
Tom Poti, in just his seventh game this year after being in and out of the lineup because of what was believed to be a groin injury, made veteran savvy decisions and helped diffuse the Lightning's potent offense. He also added the game's final goal.
The young pairing of Karl Alzner and John Carlson was tasked with containing the line of Steve Downie, Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis - the latter two ranking among the top four scorers in the NHL. Both effectively neutralized several early scoring chances, including a play when Carlson deftly swept the puck away from Sean Bergenheim on a partial breakaway.
Carlson also showed the other side to his game, blasting a slap shot past Tampa Bay starter Mike Smith after a faceoff win by Marcus Johansson to give Washington a 1-0 lead 3:09 into the first period.
"I felt pretty good," said Carlson, who hadn't scored a goal since Nov. 5 against Boston. "My legs weren't as good as I would like them to be, but I felt that I was pretty good; in position the whole time and stayed out of trouble."
John Erskine put Washington up 2-0 with a slap shot that bounced over Smith's shoulder before the five-minute mark in the second period. Then it was Semin's turn to step back in the spotlight after failing to score a goal in the past four games.
Before seven minutes passed in the middle frame, Semin, who has eight points in two games against Tampa Bay this year, and Johansson skated into the offensive zone on a two-on-one. Johansson waited just long enough to draw a Lightning defender closer before threading a cross-ice pass to the left faceoff circle where Semin let go a wicked, one-timed slap shot for a 3-0 lead.
About two minutes later, Semin capped off a series of tic-tac-toe passes - Alex Ovechkin to Nicklas Backstrom to Semin - on the power play with a nearly identical, blazing one-timer from the left circle.
Semin's third goal, while on a two-man advantage, was off the most improbable of set-ups: Backstrom found the narrowest of spaces between a kneeling Tampa Bay defenseman Pavel Kubina's skate and leg to get the puck across the crease. Semin whipped the shot to the right upper corner of the net to put Washington up 5-0 for the hat trick.
"The first time he tried [the pass through the crease], it didn't work that well," Semin said through an interpreter. His three hat tricks this season matches the number he had in his career entering the 2009-10 campaign. "But the second time I was waiting for it. I'm glad it worked out for him, but I was waiting."
The victory comes just four days after the end of one of the most lackluster three-game stretches that Washington has played all season, which featured two shutout losses on the road. For the Capitals, the ability to quell the poor play and find the poise they've sought for two months of the regular season by way of back-to-back wins and a near perfect showing against one of the hottest teams in the NHL is significant.
"It's a long season and you're going to have your ups and downs, I think," Backstrom said. "Hopefully that was our down period and we can work ourselves up again. It feels like we're back on track and we're working hard out there."