By Gene Wang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 4, 2011; 1:17 AM
Less than two full days following one of their most notable regular season triumphs in franchise history, the Washington Capitals got back to practice, and as players discussed their final reminiscences of the Winter Classic, they also began channeling their full attention toward a formidable adversary in the Southeast Division.
No doubt, a 3-1 victory over Pittsburgh was both stirring and redemptive - the Capitals had just lost to their nemesis in a shootout on Dec. 23 - but of more immediate concern now is the first of two games in eight days against Tampa Bay, which is bidding to dethrone Washington from its perch as defending three-time division champion.
The Capitals and Lightning each have 51 points, good for a first-place tie in the Southeast Division. Both teams recently have been playing some of their best hockey, with Washington going 5-0-1 since losing a season-worst eight in a row and Tampa Bay producing an 8-1-1 record over its past 10 games.
"[Tuesday is] going to be a huge game for us," captain Alex Ovechkin said. "We play against a great team. It's a divisional game. Again it's going to be a huge two points, and if we win, we're going to be in first, and it'll give us a little bit [of room] to breathe."
The Capitals were able to do a little bit of relaxing on Sunday in the wake of their nationally televised victory in prime time in front of 68,111 at Heinz Field became the most viewed regular season hockey game since 1975. After Pittsburgh got a goal from Evgeni Malkin to take a 1-0 lead early in the second period, Washington unleashed three unanswered goals.
"It was a big win," left wing Jason Chimera said of the Winter Classic, "but you've got to remember it's only two points. It was a big stage. It obviously was a huge win. I think you want to win on a big stage like that, but it's still ultimately two points. We've got a big game tomorrow, and we've got to look forward to that."
While the Capitals were on the ice on Saturday night, Tampa Bay made a deal to acquire Dwayne Roloson from the New York Islanders in exchange for defenseman Ty Wishart. The addition of Roloson, 41, provides a veteran presence in net for a team whose best goalie of late has been rookie Cedrick Desjardins, who allowed one goal in each of his first two career starts and stopped 61 of 63 shots.
Who starts in goal for Tampa Bay, though, might be the least of the Capitals' apprehensions. The Lightning features two of the most dynamic players in the league in veteran right wing Martin St. Louis and emerging superstar center Steven Stamkos, 20. The duo has combined for 106 points in 39 games, and Stamkos last season claimed the Maurice Richard Trophy with 51 goals.
Consider Ovechkin and center Nicklas Backstrom have just 79 points in 40 games this season, and it's clear why the Lightning may present a more worrisome impediment to a deep playoff run for the Capitals than even Pittsburgh by the end of the season. The Capitals did win the teams' first two meetings, scoring six goals each time, but after Tuesday's home game, they must face the Lightning three more times - all on the road.
"Our opponent in name only should be enough to not have a hangover" from the Winter Classic, Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "I mean we're playing a team that's tied with us. We have to play the best we can, and they just made a trade for a good goaltender, so it's an interesting scenario that's going to happen."
Capitals notes: Goalie Michal Neuvirth got hit in the face with a stick during the early portion of pratice Monday morning at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, forcing him from the ice and to the locker room for stitches. That left Semyon Varlamov as the only goalie, prompting the coaching staff to ask team Web producer Brett Leonhardt to put on equipment to fill in. "He was bleeding," Boudreau said of Neuvirth, who has not played since Dec. 23. "I think the stick got inside the mask somehow." . . . Varlamov, meantime, was named the NHL's first star of the week following a stretch in which he has won three consecutive games.