Braden Holtby celebrates after stoning Lecavalier in the shootout. (Photo credit: Scott Audette)
The first sign of trouble came when a wicked shot by Tampa Bay center Nate Thompson struck Capitals goalie Michal Neuvirth in the helmet mere seconds into the game.
The helmet snaps broke. His colorful mask fell off and skidded to the boards. Neuvirth doubled over, apparently unable to make the ringing in his head stop. He allowed a soft power play goal and departed after the first period, forcing the Washington Capitals goalie carousel to turn to third-stringer Braden Holtby in a divisional showdown with a hard-hitting playoff atmosphere.
Capitals fans have been trying to figure out which one of Washington’s three baby-faced goalies is the future of the franchise all year long. Holtby tried to stake his claim with a brilliant 21-save effort in a pivotal 2-1 shootout win over the Lightning. The Capitals now lead the Lightning by two points in the Southeast Division.
Holtby saved the Capitals with a brilliant arm save on Simon Gagne in the second period. Holtby did not allow a goal on three shots in the shootout. Sorry, Dominic Moore. Better luck next time, Adam Hall. No sale, Lecavalier. The Lightning captain may have knocked Neuvirth out, but he couldn’t do a thing with Holtby in the shootout. Holtby stood up to the towering Lecavalier, all 6 feet, 4 inches of him, and redirected the puck away with his left pad.
Holtby was the night’s Star of the Game on an evening in which he probably expected to sit around, sip some Gatorade and be a spectator.
Stakes were high, and the Capitals wanted to ride Neuvirth, who now owns the franchise record for most wins by a rookie. Before the game, Lightning star Steven Stamkos proclaimed this “our biggest game of the year.”
The Lightning, losers of four straight, played with a hint of desperation. Vincent Lecavalier threw his body around with reckless abandon. They played with urgency on power plays. Sean Bergenheim scored off a redirect of a Martin St. Louis shot to give the Lightning a 1-0 lead with 12:30 to go in the first. It seemed as if Neuvirth was simply screened and could not see the high shot, but who knows how he was feeling in the crease?
So the Capitals fell behind again in the first period. Not that it ever seems to matter. The Capitals are 9-3 in their last 12 games in which they fell behind in the opening stanza. Alexander Semin tied the game in regulation in the third period off a creative wrist shot blast.
The Capitals dominated the overtime period, with Ovechkin almost scoring, like, 57 times. Alas, Dwayne Roloson somehow managed to hang in there, including on a Brooks Laich breakaway set up by a relentless Ovechkin back check.
Ovechkin scored in the shootout, possibly murdering an innocent Gatorade bottle in the process, leading the Capitals to a fifth win in a row. This one point might be costly. Caps bottle Lightning 2-1.
Does it even matter who the Capitals put in goal anymore? They seem to be fine no matter who they play. Braden Holtby didn’t allow a goal after coming in to relieve the injured Michal Neuvirth. He was spectacular in a 2-1 Capitals win over the Tampa Bay Lightning that brings them one tantalizing step closer to the Southeast Division crown.
The Capitals will now return home and face the second-worst team in the NHL, the Edmonton Oilers, at Verizon Center Wednesday night. Is it a must win, just like tonight? You better believe it. Will it be easy? Probably not. We’ll see you then.
Additional reporting by Neil Greenberg and Ian Oland.
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