TAMPA, Fla. | There were no controversial hits and no controversial celebrations for Alex Ovechkin, but there were two goals and a triumphant return.
Semyon Varlamov made 26 saves for his second career shutout for the Washington Capitals, and Ovechkin had a pair of tallies in a 3-0 victory Monday night at St. Pete Times Forum against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Washington’s sixth straight victory keeps it atop the Eastern Conference standings and pushed it in front of idle San Jose for the most points in the NHL. It was also the 12th straight victory against Tampa Bay for the Caps, which is a club record against an opponent.
“It is nice [to be No. 1 overall in the NHL] at any time, but I am hoping we are there after 82 games,” Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said. “It is quite a good thing for them, especially with all of the travel we’ve had to do in the last month.”
Ovechkin was suspended for two games after his knee-on-knee collision with Carolina’s Tim Gleason on Nov. 30. He has missed a total of eight games this season, but he moved to within one goal of New York’s Marian Gaborik for the league lead in his bid for a third straight Maurice Richard trophy.
“First period I was just trying to get in the game and create some space - try maybe more shots than normal,” Ovechkin said. “We want to be there [on top of the standings]. If you there, you have to continue to play how you play. We just have to be the same team we were today.”
Varlamov has won four straight starts and is 12-1-2 on the season. He has yielded just five goals in the four starts after back-to-back extra-time losses at Toronto and Ottawa.
The 21-year-old rookie began the year by yielding four goals in three of his first five appearances. Since then Varlamov has given up only 20 in 11 starts.
“I think the world will start to get to know him as the season progresses because he’s going to be a special athlete,” Boudreau said.
After a sluggish and scoreless opening period, Ovechkin netted his first of the night 7:39 into the second. Alexander Semin picked off a pass by Stephane Veilleux at center ice and skated down the right wing.
Three Lightning players were back, but all were too close to Semin to reach Ovechkin after a perfect cross-ice pass, and his one-timer beat Tampa Bay goalie Mike Smith. It was the seventh time this season Ovechkin has registered the first goal of the game, which is the most in the NHL.
Eric Fehr made it 2-0 about five minutes later. Tomas Fleischmann carried the puck into the zone and tried to center it from the right wing, but it was deflected high in the air.
Fehr swatted the bouncing puck past Smith for his eighth goal of the season. He has points in seven straight games, which is a career high.
“I still feel like there is more to give,” Fehr said. “I want to go out there and get a few more shots per game and more quality opportunities, and you never know what might happen, but it is a good start.”
Ovechkin pushed the lead to three with another weird sequence late in the middle period. Washington’s power play was scuffling, but the Caps had an odd-man rush after nearly yielding a chance at the other end.
Semin sent a pass from left to right to Fleischmann, but his one-timer clanged off the right post. The rebound went off Ovechkin’s stick near the left post and trickled along the goal line before tucking just inside the net at the far side.
“The second one was a pretty lucky goal,” Ovechkin said. “I try to use my backhand and then my forehand, and I just missed the puck, but it still [went] in.”
The last time Ovechkin played in this building, his “hot stick” celebration for his 50th goal last season set off a swirl of criticism - not unlike the stir his two ejections in three games caused last month.
“I thought [Ovechkin] was a little rusty and wasn’t moving his legs like most of us weren’t in the first period,” Boudreau said. “We started moving our legs, and we started getting chances to score.”