- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 31, 2010

WASHINGTON | The Washington Capitals are well aware they’re in rare air these days.

The only other time the local NHL franchise won 10 games in a row, Ronald Reagan was president, the Winter Olympics were being held in Sarajevo, and Apple had just rolled out its new computer, the Macintosh.

But with their 3-2 win over Tampa Bay Sunday afternoon at Verizon Center, the team tied a franchise mark for consecutive wins set in the 1983-84 season, as Alex Ovechkin’s goal with 6:26 left in regulation gave the Capitals the win over their Southeast Division rival and closed out a franchise record month where the team went 13-2.

“Number 10 is pretty tough to get to, and I told the guys, ‘You might go your whole career without getting it again, so enjoy it,’” a self-described “mellow” coach Bruce Boudreau said after the contest.

Washington also got goals from Nicklas Backstrom and Brooks Laich in the second period, and despite blowing a two-goal lead in a three-minute span in the third period when Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos scored on a pair of quick strikes for Tampa Bay, that just set up Ovechkin’s late heroics as he wristed a shot past Lightning goaltender Mike Smith for the winner.

“We didn’t give up,” Ovechkin said afterwards, “Most important thing is we scored late in the third period. It’s fun when you score a game-winning goal with [six] minutes left in the game.”

Unlike the Jan. 12 meeting between the two clubs in Tampa Bay — a wide-open contest that produced 11 goals and Washington’s last taste of defeat — Sunday night’s game was more of a defensive contest, as the visitors came to Washington trying to slow down the highest-scoring team in the NHL — and for the most part, succeeding in doing just that, limiting the Capitals to just two goals through 53 minutes.

Washington had a couple of good chances in the first, the best one being when Tomas Fleischmann couldn’t corral a puck on a power-play early in the first period, and despite having some good chances, the Caps couldn’t convert. Tampa Bay had its best chance with nine minutes gone in the period, when a Matt Walker shot hit the post and deflected off the back of Capitals’ netminder Jose Theodore, but he was able to swat the puck before it could enter the net, leaving the game scoreless through 20 minutes.

Former Capitals captain Jeff Halpern was whistled for tripping Backstrom just :15 into the second, and that infraction led to Washington’s first goal just 42 seconds later. Backstrom picked up a loose rebound of an Ovechkin shot from the point, and put just enough on it to sneak it through Lightning goaltender Mike Smith’s pads for a 1-0 Capitals lead.

The goal was Backstrom’s 23rd of the season, setting a career-high for the 22-year-old who will suit up for Sweden next month at the Olympics after just 55 games this season.

Washington put more pressure on Smith throughout the second as the ice began to tilt the Capitals’ way, and after a wild sequence with just over seven minutes to play, the Caps doubled their lead.

After some nifty passing in the offensive zone, Alexander Semin fed a cross-ice pass to Fleischmann that drew Smith to drop down to protect the lower part of the net from the expected shot. Instead of firing, Fleischmann fed the puck back across the ice to Semin, but the Russian’s shot was blocked in front. However, Brooks Laich was able to pick up the loose puck and shoot it in the net with 12:56 gone in the period.

Despite the territorial edge, Washington couldn’t cash in on several chances to extend the lead, and the Lightning struck twice in the third to draw even.

Tampa Bay cut into the lead exactly five minutes into the third on a fluky goal, as St. Louis redirected a Kurtis Foster drive just under the crossbar for his 16th of the season, and then Washington went short-handed just seven seconds later. Things got very dicey for the hosts when Fleischmann was whistled for a hook with :23 left in the first penalty, giving the Lightning a 5-on-3 advantage and a chance to draw even. Stamkos did just that, blasting a slapper past Theodore just seconds after hitting iron, drawing the Lightning even just 2:42 after St. Louis’ tally.

With the crowd quieted, the Lightning looked for their first lead of the night, but Theodore held his ground, and it was Ovechkin who sent the Caps to their 10th straight win, taking a pass from Backstrom and whipping a wrister past Smith with 6:26 left to play.

“I saw [Ovechkin’s] blade so I was trying to get the puck to his blade,” Backstrom said. “I had a little bit of luck there.”

With the win, Washington can set a new franchise mark Tuesday night when they visit the struggling Bruins. Despite the fact the B’s went the entire month of January without a win at TD Garden (their lone ‘home’ win was the Winter Classic played on New Year’s Day at Fenway Park), Boudreau said he certainly isn’t overlooking Boston.

“No matter what their struggles are, I still think they are a great team,” the coach said. “Maybe at the end, if they catch fire, they could be the team to beat in the East.”

“It’s very tough to win,” Laich said. “It’s tough physically, it’s tough mentally, but you have to keep pushing and not overlook any opponent and play desperate to win.”

But for one more day, the Caps’ winning ways continued, with the jovial attitude best summed up by their captain.

“[The streak] is kind of fun,” Ovechkin said. “We don’t want to stop. We want to keep winning and playing well.”

NOTES: Before Sunday’s game, Washington sent goaltender Michal Neuvirth down to Hershey and recalled Braden Holtby from their AHL affiliate. Neuvirth posted a 8-4-0 mark for the Caps so far this season, while Holtby has backed up in two games for Washington, but has yet to see action in a Capitals uniform. Holtby has been stellar with the Bears, going 16-2-1 with a 2.04 goals-against average and a .928 save percentage as Hershey took an eight-game winning streak of their own into Sunday’s afternoon’s game against Binghamton … Mike Green served the first game of his three-game suspension for elbowing Michael Frolik in Friday’s win over Florida. He will be eligible to return Friday night when the Capitals host Atlanta … The Capitals’ 10-game win streak in 1983-84 began on Jan. 27, 1984, with a win against Toronto, and reached double digits in a 4-2 win at St. Louis on Feb. 18. The streak ended the next night in a 4-3 overtime loss to Winnipeg. Washington that year finished with 101 points, winning its first playoff series in franchise history with a 3-0 sweep over Philadelphia before falling in the second round to the eventual Wales Conference champion Islanders in five games … Washington moves to 21-3-3 on home ice this season, with the fewest regulation losses in the NHL at home. They also have won nine straight on home ice.

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