WASHINGTON – Just like the old days. The Washington Capitals are in first place, and Alex Ovechkin is tied for the NHL's goal-scoring lead.
Nicklas Backstrom poured cold water on that kind of thinking in a hurry.
"It doesn't matter if it feels that way, because it depends how it is in the playoffs," the Capitals center said. "And we weren't that successful in the playoffs."
True, the Capitals teams from those "old days" — which, in this case, is just a few years ago — always collapsed in the postseason, but this year's team was in serious danger of not making the playoffs at all. They have now rallied to put themselves in the driver's seat, moving two points clear in first place in the Southeast Division with Sunday's 4-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning.
"Now we're back on track," Ovechkin said. "And it's good."
Harking back to his MVP days, Ovechkin scored his 24th and 25th goals to tie the Lightning's Steven Stamkos for the top spot in the league. Ovechkin has 16 goals in 14 games, including a total of five in back-to-back games over the weekend.
John Carlson and Joel Ward also scored for the Capitals, who have won four straight and eight of 10. Washington is two points ahead of the Winnipeg Jets in the Southeast race with a game in hand. Michal Neuvirth, making his first start since March 16, had 28 saves, including a pair of point-blank one-on-one stops against Vincent Lecavalier.
Lecavalier and Alex Killorn scored for the Lightning, whose playoff hopes are bleak following back-to-back weekend losses. Tampa Bay has been playing better since Jon Cooper replaced Guy Boucher as coach last month, but the team trails Washington by eight points with three weeks remaining in the regular season.
"We're getting better as a team, there's so many things that are getting better," Cooper said. "The problem is we're just running out of time."
Ovechkin's production had been declining sharply since his MVP seasons of 2007-08 and 2008-09, and he spent the first part of this lockout-truncated season adjusting to a different position and playing style under new coach Adam Oates.
But Ovechkin has regained his stride in recent weeks, leading the Capitals back into playoff position while producing a pair of hat tricks, including his trio of goals in Saturday's win over the Florida Panthers.
There wasn't anything flashy about his goals on Sunday. The first one was a redirect, and the second was an empty-netter with 4.4 seconds to play.
Lecavalier scored on the Lightning's first shot, redirecting the puck from Martin St. Louis past Neuvirth on a power play less than 2 minutes into the game. Lecavalier could have reasonably had a hat trick in the first period, with two later chances to close in solo on Neuvirth, but the goalie stopped him both times.
The Capitals answered with three goals in the second period. Ovechkin redirected Jack Hillen's shot to tie the game, Carlson beat Ben Bishop (34 saves) high to the glove side with a slap shot, and Ward kept the puck on a 3-on-2 break and put it past Bishop on the stick side.
Between the goals by Ovechkin and Carlson, Killorn put the Lightning back in front temporarily by taking the puck at the blue line, maneuvering around Hillen and beating Neuvirth one-on-one.
Notes: Ward limped off after blocking a shot in the third period and didn't return, but Oates said the forward was OK and would make the trip to play the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday. ... Washington F Brooks Laich, hurt again after missing the first 28 games of the season with a groin injury, will see a specialist on Tuesday. "They can't quite get a handle on what it is," Oates said. "He just doesn't feel good. It's a little sore everywhere, but not necessarily where he was in the groin, and that's why he's seeing the specialist." ... Washington F Martin Erat, acquired from the Nashville Predators at the trade deadline, sat out with a lower body injury after taking a nasty hit from Erik Gudbranson on Saturday. Oates said he doesn't think "it's going to be too long" before Erat returns. ... The Capitals are 12-3 against Southeast opponents. ... Backstrom earned his 300th career assist. ... The Capitals are 13-1-1 in their past 15 home games against the Lightning.
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