Holiday dessert arrived a day late for Capitals’ fans, but Friday’s post-Thanksgiving rout of the surging Tampa Bay Lightning was worth waiting for. It was a dominant decision that head coach Bruce Boudreau rightly termed “a stepping stone” from Wednesday’s 3-2 victory in Carolina, which snapped the Caps’ recent string of miserable road work. “I don’t know if it was perfect, but it was as good as we’ve played all year,” Gabby said of the Caps’ 6-0 blanking.
The last time the Caps met the ‘Bolts, at Verizon Center on November 11, Alexander Semin potted three goals and two assists in a 6-3 triumph by the hosts. Friday night Semin’s hat trick arrived naturally — in just 4:29 of playing time in a second period in which the Caps’ crisp passing and razzle-dazzle distribution ended any remaining doubt about the outcome. Entering play last night Tampa had closed to within four points of the Caps for first place in the Southeast.
It’s a good thing the Caps no longer play Tampa and the rest of the Southeast division eight times each a season — contract negotiations with Semin and his agent then would get really expensive for General manager George McPhee.
Stat of the night: Semin now has three hat tricks in just the past 35 days, the fastest ever by a Cap in one season. The former holder of that honor was Peter Bondra, who had three in 60 days during the 1996 season.
Semin’s strikes were all of the highlight-reel variety — a pair of one-timer blasts from the weak side off of stellar feeds from Johansson and Nick Backstrom, and a jaw-dropping tally off a sublime feed from Backstrom again on the power play. The Swedish pivot, regaining his elite form of late, fed a seeing-eye cross-ice pass onto Semin’s tape, which the sniper whipped into the upper corner of the cage to secure his third hat trick of the season and give the Caps an unassailable 5-0 lead. It was a play impossible to defend.
Perhaps lost in all of the goal scoring prowess was the play of the Capitals’ defensemen Friday night. John Carlson and Karl Alzner kept Tampa’s top line, featuring Steven Stamkos, more or less silent. Tom Poti also impressed, with Bruce Boudreau pointing out, “You could tell his experience back there when he got the puck he made the right plays.” John Erskine scored his third goal of the season, extending his career high lamp-lighting tally. The blueline unit overall exhibited exceptional positional play and consistently limited the time and space and impact of Tampa’s high-powered top line.
It was a conspicuously easy evening for Semyon Varlamov, who earned his third career shutout and was called upon to make just 17 saves. And Marcus Johnasson recorded the first multi-point game of his NHL career, with two assists, the first of which arrived with a clean win of the draw in the Tampa zone, which Carlson promptly blasted past a helpless Mike Smith. Tampa used both Smith and Dan Ellis Friday night, but no goalie would have bailed out a work-ethic-challenged Tampa club going against a suddenly in-synch Caps’ club.
Beyond all of the scoring though, the defense stepped up in several crucial spots, none more important than during a 5-3 penalty kill with less than five minutes to play in the second period. Yes the Caps were up 5-0 at the time, but two quick scores Tampa there and Washington could have been positioned for some most unwanted third period drama. The D-corps and special teams held strong, though, and the Caps were able to quasi-cruise. And consider that the Caps were without their top defenseman, Mike Green. On the night the Caps’ specialty teams were stellar: 5-for-5 on the PK, striking twice in four opportunities while on the man advantage.
Erskine’s stellar year has been one of the pleasant surprises of the season. Last year he looked like a guy who was going to play himself off the team, but this year he seems to have that fifth d-man spot locked up. He spoke to that after the game and it is our quote of the night.
Erskine on his new-found confidence: “I think it is nice coming to the rink and knowing you are in the lineup. There have been other years where you’re kind of guessing trying to think about what the coach is thinking. This year I am just kind of rolling with it and playing.” Part of his “rolling with it” Friday night was another impressive bit of handiwork with the gloves dropped.
With one day off, the Caps will face the Carolina Hurricane’s for the second time in less than seven days on Sunday. Washington was able to pull out of their longest slump of the year and point the ship in the right direction against the ‘Canes on Wednesday. The ‘Canes have been among Washington’s toughest divisional opponents in recent years, and irrespective of the standings the two teams always play each other tough. But even an outstanding effort Sunday by the Caps will be tough to match last night’s virtually perfect three-period performance.