- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 20, 2010

TAMPA, Fla. | After sitting out two games thanks to his suspension for boarding Brian Campbell, it didn’t take long for Alex Ovechkin to make an impression.

The Caps’ star scored just 10:47 into Saturday’s game at Tampa Bay, and also created several scoring chances in his return to climb into a tie for the NHL’s goal-scoring lead.

Ovechkin’s goal stood up as the game-winner as Jose Theodore was solid in net for Washington, as he withstood a 34-shot Lightning barrage to help keep the Caps in front after Ovechkin’s tally en route to a 3-1 win at the St. Pete Times Forum.

“I thought [Theodore] was outstanding,” Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said afterwards. “I felt so comfortable with him in the net. It was a really good feeling to have.”

Theodore also continued to make his case for being the team’s No. 1 goalie once the playoffs start, keeping his club in the lead for the last 49 minutes of the contest. Afterwards, Theodore said he knows all he can do is play well and earn his coach’s trust.

“That’s [Boudreau’s] call,” Theodore said. “I just like to play the game and do my stuff. The rest is really out of control.”

With the win, the Capitals also move closer to clinching their first-ever regular-season Eastern Conference crown, as they picked up points on both teams who are chasing them for home-ice advantage throughout the first three rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The Caps also closed out an eventful weeklong, four-game road trip — one that began with Ovechkin getting tossed out six days ago in Chicago — with a 3-0-1 record. Boudreau said afterwards he was pleased with the trip, with the Caps collecting seven points in “four tough buildings.”

Washington opened the scoring just 2:40 into the contest as Tomas Fleischmann tipped in a nice cross-ice feed from Eric Fehr past Antero Niittymaki for an early 1-0 lead.

Continuing a trend of late, however, the Capitals surrendered a bit of the momentum from their lamp-lighter.

The Capitals took a penalty on the very next shift, as after the Lightning narrowly missed a scoring chance on Jose Theodore, Mike Green was called for hooking just :43 after the Fleischmann goal.

The Capitals did kill off the penalty, and narrowly missed making it a 2-0 lead as an apparent Mike Knuble tally with 5:47 gone in regulation was waved off as the net was dislodged before the puck entered the cage to keep the Washington lead at just one.

The washed-out goal became a factor just over two minutes later, as Vinny Lecavalier tied the game with 7:54 gone, taking a feed from Teddy Purcell and then one-timing it past Theodore.

Washington then took another penalty, as John Carlson was called for a hold just :19 after Lecavalier’s tally. Washington did get a good scoring chance when Jason Chimera broke in and drew the netminder down, but the defenseman knocked it off its moorings before the circling forward could center the puck in front of the gaping cage.

Ovechkin then got his first pair of scoring chances as the penalty expired. The Caps’ star missed the net on his first chance, but then picked up a long Nicklas Backstrom pass off the boards and broke in alone on the Tampa netminder, beating him with a nice move for his first goal since March 8th.

“I thought [Backstrom] was going to give me [a pass] through the middle, but he gave it to me along the boards,” Ovechkin said afterwards. “He’s one of the top passers in the league.”

The goal was Ovechkin’s 45th of the season, tying him atop the goal-scoring race with Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby.

The Caps got their first power play of the night when Mike Lundin was whistled for holding with 2:50 left in the frame, and Scott Walker narrowly cashed in during the delayed call when he hit the far post with Theodore on the bench for the extra attacker.

Washington got a brief 5-on-3 after Paul Szeczechura tripped Ovechkin — although the Caps narrowly put the puck in their own net with Theodore on the bench during the delayed call — but failed to convert and were whistled for delay-of-game with :01.4 left in the frame.

While the Caps were outshot 13-4, they held a 2-1 lead after 20 minutes.

The second opened a bit slower, with the biggest development being Scott Walker getting bested in a bout by Zenon Konopka right in front of the Capitals bench at the 2:49 mark. That set the tone in a period that featured a pair of boarding calls — both of which resulted in scrums between the two divisional foes.

Washington put together a nice flurry just before the 13-minute mark, getting just their sixth shot of the contest to that point — despite holding the 2-1 lead.

Theodore kept the Caps in front, hoewever, making a nice stop on Steven Stamkos who was bidding on his 43rd goal of the campaign. He then made another good save when Lecavalier one-timed a pass, but Theodore stopped the puck.

John Erskine gave the Lightning a power play by boarding Nate Thompson with 7:57 left in the period, but Theodore made another good stop on Stamkos with his shoulder just :32 into the man advantage. Shortly after that, a meele broke out after Lecavalier was called for tripping Tom Poti. Tampa Bay’s Steve Downie then slid Poti’s stick down the ice, causing a skirmish along the boards.

Washington got a power play when Stephane Veilleux was called for high-sticking at 15:39, but the Bolts killed off the infraction, then got a power play of their own when Fehr was called for boarding with 1:29 left in the period, setting off another skirmish between the teams.

The third started off very much like the second, with not a ton of offense, and with Theodore making some good stops.

But Washington took a two-goal lead as Alexander Semin deposited a rebound of a Brooks Laich shot with 12:40 left in regulation, giving the Caps some breathing room.

Theodore continued to sparkle at the other end of the ice, making a save on his back to keep the Caps’ lead intact just after the halfway point of the period and really deflated the Lightning’s hopes of a comeback as the host’s hopes of grabbing a playoff spot continued to fade.

Green had a rough shift with just over three minutes to play, getting hit along the boards and then caught by a shot, but he did return for a last-minute power-play to run out the clock for Washington.

With the win, the Caps reach 106 points on the season, the third-highest total in team history — and reached in just 72 games. Washington will get a chance to match last year’s franchise record for points Wednesday when Pittsburgh makes its final regular-season visit to Verizon Center.

The Capitals also took a sizeable 9-point lead in the team’s bid to win the club’s first President’s Trophy, with the Coyotes beating the Blackhawks in a shootout Saturday. Chicago has just 11 games remaining.

More importantly, with 10 games left in the regular season for Washington, the Caps moved closer to clinching the top seed in the East thanks to a pair of out-of-town scores. The Penguins lost in overtime against the Hurricanes at home, while the Devils were shut out by the Blues in Newark, meaning both teams can only reach the 110-point mark on the season. Pittsburgh and New Jersey would hold the tiebreaker with less overtime losses, meaning the Caps need just five points in those final 10 games to clinch the top seed in the conference.

And, with their captain back, the Caps were able to finish the road trip on a high note.

“Well, it’s always nice to go back and play hockey — and score goals,” a grinning Ovechkin said afterwards.

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