Star scores twice more in victory over Lightning
Capitals star winger Alex Ovechkin made no mistake this time. With an empty net yawning ahead of him and the game essentially over, he skated the puck all the way to the goal and slipped it home.
For Ovechkin and his team, which hadn't scored an empty-netter all year, there had been too many missed opportunities this season. Now they are seizing them one after another on a steady march back to the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Ovechkin scored two more goals as he continued a torrid stretch of hockey and goalie Michal Neuvirth, starting for just the third time in 28 games, finished with 28 saves as the Caps took a 4-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Sunday night at Verizon Center.
The victory lifted Washington (20-17-2, 42 points) into sole possession of first place in the Southeast Division for the first time all season, and it still has a game in hand on the second-place Winnipeg Jets (19-19-2, 40 points) with just nine games remaining.
"This is good. We fight through it, and finally we can feel confidence," Ovechkin said. "But again, we can't stop playing. We have to continue play how we play."
Tampa Bay (16-20-2, 34 points) took an early lead in the first period when Martin St. Louis took a faceoff win and immediately found teammate Vinny Lecavalier, who tapped in the pass just 1:52 into the contest.
Ovechkin tied things early in the second period. He tipped home a shot from defenseman Jack Hillen for his 24th goal of the season. That goal 3:14 into the period tied the game at 1-1. Ovechkin later tied Tampa Bay center Steven Stamkos for the NHL lead in goals (25) with his empty-net shot.
But the Lightning answered that even-strength tally quickly. Alex Killorn skated onto a long pass from Lecavalier, deked Hillen, the last man back, and skated in alone on Neuvirth for an easy goal to make it 2-1.
Then Washington fought back again. Defenseman John Carlson took a drop pass from Joel Ward and skated unopposed into the offensive zone. He had plenty of time to wind up and whistle a shot past Lightning goalie Ben Bishop -- all 6-foot-7 of him. The shot tipped off a defenseman's stick and carried right over Bishop's glove hand and into the roof of the net to tie the game at 2-2.
Just 3:27 later it was Ward's turn. He took a pass from Mathieu Perreault at center ice and drove hard down the left wing. Just as he neared the net, Ward moved the puck to his forehand and beat Bishop for the 3-2 advantage. That lead would hold the rest of the night.
"The schedule has been just crazy. Right now the staff and the players, we're treating it just a game at a time," said Caps coach Adam Oates, whose team is 5-0-1 in its last six games. "It's been working for us. We've not been talking about anything else. Just focus on tonight and let's play. We'll deal with [winning the division] later."