Capitals vs. Lightning: Physical effort pulls Washington closer to Southeast Division-leading Tampa Bay

Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 5, 2011; 12:51 AM

TAMPA - The crowd at the St. Pete Times Forum serenaded Karl Alzner and John Carlson with boos as the Washington Capitals' young defensive tandem played a game of catch with the puck in their own zone in the middle of the second period. They and the rest of the Capitals were under orders to force the Tampa Bay Lightning to make the first move.

After failing to escape the Lightning's neutral-zone form of quicksand, in which players swarm the puck carrier to create turnovers, in each of the teams' two most recent meetings, Coach Bruce Boudreau devised a plan to derail - or at least rattle - the Tampa Bay system. The patient strategy, coupled with a relentless willingness to drive the net and occupy high-traffic areas, propelled the Capitals to a 5-2 win against the Lightning on Friday night.

Washington pulled within three points of Tampa Bay for first place in the Southeast Division and snapped its foe's six-game winning streak with its first five-goal outing since Dec. 21 against the New Jersey Devils.

The Capitals devoted the two days preceding Friday night's game to practicing and watching video of how to counteract the Lightning's tendencies. While the unadulterated attention was rare, Boudreau said he believed something else was more important.

"That I don't think was half as important as the commitment the players had tonight," Boudreau said. "You could see every one of them were committed to doing the right thing and they did, we got a couple lucky breaks and won the game. . . . It was something we tried because nothing seemed to work before. [Lightning Coach Guy Boucher] will figure something out to stop that, but it worked for one night."

From the opening faceoff, the Capitals set a physical tone and rampant pace but early on it looked like Dwayne Roloson, the veteran goaltender who shut out Washington the past two meetings, might be able to hold them off once again. Although the Capitals started with energy and four shots on a power play that began in the game's first minute, it was the Lightning that took a 1-0 lead. Just 3 minutes 21 seconds in, Teddy Purcell beat Washington's Semyon Varlamov with a shot from the right circle - Tampa Bay's first of the game.

Washington didn't fade but couldn't seem to fluster Roloson until Matt Hendricks bulldozed his way into the crease five minutes later. The Capitals' gritty forward absorbed at least four punches from the Tampa Bay netminder while the two were tangled up, and both players were given penalties. But it appeared Hendricks succeeded in knocking Roloson off his game.

When four-on-four play commenced, Washington crowded Roloson's real estate once again and Nicklas Backstrom was able to retrieve a rebound from a Mike Green shot and fire into an empty net to tie the game. On the next shift, Varlamov made a stellar stop on a point-blank shot by Martin St. Louis to keep the score knotted at 1. Varlamov rebounded well after giving up the early goal and finished with 23 saves.

"We kept the puck in there and we kept the puck deep," said Backstrom, whose four points matched Alex Ovechkin for the game high, of Washington's sustained offensive pressure. "We had the puck longer in their offensive zone every shift and that's what we need if we're going to create chances like we did today."

Already racing along at a frenzied, hard-hitting pace, the first period was dotted with a pair of fights: one between Tampa Bay's Steve Downie and Hendricks, likely for the latter taking liberties against Roloson; and another between Matt Bradley and Adam Hall, who had finished a punishing check on Green behind the Washington net. The Capitals seemed to thrive off each hit and each time a teammate stood up for one another, though; in the first period they outshot Tampa Bay 17-6.

At 6:38 in the second, Brooks Laich roofed a backhander from the slot for his first goal in seven games, giving the Capitals a 2-1 edge. Less than two minutes later, Washington struck again, this time on the power play.

Ovechkin rifled a shot through traffic created by Mike Knuble in front for his third power-play tally of the season and first since Oct. 30 in Calgary - 41 games ago - to make it 3-1. With the two-goal cushion, the Capitals were content to torment the Lightning by playing a game of keep-away, even if it meant passing back and forth in their own zone for 30 seconds at a time.

"It's tough to find something that works against these guys - their neutral zone's so good - and we were told what to do, everybody bought in, and that's what happens when you've got every single guy on the ice doing the exact same thing," Alzner said. "It's not pretty but it worked."

The Lightning continued to press and eventually cut the Capitals' lead to one with just 40.1 seconds remaining in the second on a goal by Brett Clark. Buoyed by the late goal, Tampa Bay tried to reestablish momentum and draw even in the third but the Capitals continued to slow play and mind their own zone.

Backstrom added a second goal with less than eight minutes remaining in regulation that allowed the Capitals to smother the remaining hope for a comeback out of the Lightning. Jason Chimera chipped in an empty-netter for the final marker.

"Bruce and the coaches had a great system. We even got their fans frustrated with the way we were playing," Bradley said. "I thought we really stuck with it and that's what definitely helped us toward the end when they were pushing."

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