It was over early and then in doubt. It was over when Troy Brouwer scored on an empty net, and then it got interesting.
This looked like an easy night for the Washington Capitals, but they were sweating down to the final two seconds when a shot went off the outside of the net. At the end of the night Friday at Verizon Center, it was a 4-3 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning but one that left the Caps with tempered optimism.
"We obviously would like to make a little bigger push there than just kind of sitting back and giving them the chances," defenseman Dennis Wideman said. "We played with fire there a little bit; we gave [Steven] Stamkos a few shots from the slot there. He made us pay on the one, but there were a few more that Tomas [Vokoun] made real big saves on."
The Caps took a three-goal lead early in the second period as the power play was humming along and Brouwer was on the way to his first career hat trick. Things were looking good, even as the Lightning fired away at Vokoun, who made 28 saves.
"I think we get the lead there and we sit back a little bit where we shouldn't," forward Matt Hendricks said. "Just because we have the lead doesn't mean we want to change our game a whole lot."
But the Lightning broke up the shutout late in the second and pulled within one in the waning minutes. A goal with just over 10 seconds left following Brouwer's empty-netter turned up the heat, but the Caps held on to hand Tampa Bay its sixth straight defeat.
"We won the game so it doesn't matter if you win 5-0 or 4-3," Vokoun said. "We won the game so I take that over playing great and lose the game. But we play pretty good two periods. In the third period, they kind of get the momentum and we struggle a little bit. But we won the game."
This, and every game on this homestand, featured an opponent playing the second half of a back-to-back — a fact not lost on Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher.
"I can't fault anything we've done. Our players have played hard in ridiculous situations where the other team waits for you at home while you go to bed at 4 o'clock and you played the last night," he said. "We can't ask more from our players."
The Lightning are a bruised and battered team, playing without defensemen Mattias Ohlund and Victor Hedman and having gotten crushed by the lowly Carolina Hurricanes 5-2 on Thursday night. But given how favorable the scheduling is, the Caps understand the importance of picking up points now.
"Those are the game we like to classify as must-wins," said defenseman Karl Alzner, who had his first NHL fight versus Steve Downie on Friday. "When you can take advantage of a tired team, you should at least get on them a little bit, get a lead. And we did it tonight. I think everybody is classifying all these games as must-wins now. We're not in any position to say it's just a game. So I think we're just trying to win them all."
Things were hairy in the third period, and the Caps were outshot 23-12 in the final two frames. Washington was held without a shot for 18:04 during that stretch.
Though coach Dale Hunter admitted his team went into a defensive shell, players were unhappy with how that turned out.
"The game plan was never just hold on," Brouwer said. "We got back on our heels. We let them get too many chances on us. We just weren't good defensively; we weren't sound. We've got to clean up that area of our game."
That's a fine approach to have after coming away with two points, especially now that the Caps are just two back of the Southeast Division-leading Florida Panthers. But this is the perfect opportunity to make up even more ground.
"I don't think we have any cushion to relax. These are big games," Vokoun said. "We have some tough games coming up after this stretch. They're all tough. But we're playing some teams coming in on back-to-back games and playing them at home so we got to take advantage."
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