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.
- In a rare admission of an actual head injury, Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau told Pierre McGuire during an on-air interview with Versus that Michal Neuvirth was replaced due to the shot he took off the helmet. After the game, he elaborated to the Washington Post’s Katie Carrera, saying that “part of the metal from the mask went into Neuvirth’s eye after that first shot. They got it out though. He’s going to be okay.” If Neuvy is forced to miss any time, that means more Holtby. And frankly, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
- Speaking of injured players, Nicklas Backstrom was nowhere to be found on the bench after re-injuring his left hand in the second period. The Versus folks couldn’t stop talking about how much the Capitals will miss Dave Steckel’s ability to win faceoffs. But let’s be real here. Isn’t Jason Arnott slightly more important to the cause, particularly if Backstrom must miss time? Those Versus goons acted like the Caps traded Steckel for a Chipotle steak burrito and a few hockey pucks.
- Suddenly, the Capitals are looking like a potential threat for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. The Capitals are now just three points behind floundering-but-still-in-first- place Philadelphia and one behind second place Boston.
- Random thought: Perhaps you Capitals fans can explain why the Lightning chose not to use Steven Stamkos early in the shootout. He’s only one of the best pure goal scorers to come into the NHL in the last two decades. I’d prefer to have him out there to set the tone every single time.
- Speaking of Stamkos, Bruce Boudreau went after him in comments to the press Monday morning. “Stamkos dives every two seconds,” he said. “You start to get a hatred.” Too bad Versus spent the entire first and second intermissions responding by calling Alex Ovechkin a diver. More on that later.
- #StayAngry. The Capitals had two scoring chances in the first, and another two in the second, which were thirty minutes apart. The Capitals gave up eight scoring chances while shorthanded, and had none themselves on the powerplay. Finally, the Capitals had almost as many scoring chances in 1:37 of OT (6) as they did the rest of the game (8). Suffice to say, they really wanted it in the end. Our advice to the team:
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.