Skating at Verizon Center for the first time in nearly a month, Washington picked up where they left off after the Olympic break with a 5-4 win over Tampa Bay Thursday night, marking their club-record 12th straight home win thanks to an 11th-hour traded player.
Scott Walker, who was acquired from Carolina at Wednesday’s trade deadline, scored two goals in his first game as a Capital — including the team’s last two goals in the contest — during a wild third period where the two teams traded four goals in a three-minute span.
But thanks to Walker — along Mike Knuble’s pair of goals earlier in the contest — Washington held off several Tampa Bay comeback attempts to grab the victory.
Opening a five-game homestand with their first home game since beating the Penguins back on Feb. 7, the Caps had three new faces in the lineup, as newly-acquired Eric Belanger, Joe Corvo and Walker suited up for Washington for the first time.
The newest Caps also had some good chances during the contest, as Walker got the deciding two third-period goals and Belanger also created some scoring opportunites after a bit of a rough start, while Corvo had a nice hit to open the game as well as getting time with Mike Green on the top power-play unit.
“Sometimes I caught myself thinking a little bit, but it’s a learning process and the guys on the bench, [Boyd Gordon] was great, [Jason] Chimera was awesome,” Walker said afterwards. “They helped me out a lot because that’s what you need when you are the new guy coming to the bench.”
“I think they fit in [well],” Nicklas Backstrom said of his new teammates. “Scott Walker scored two right away. He had a good start … We’ve got a great group of guys. The new players fit in [well,] even if there are a lot of trades going on. … We’re building a good team.”
Thanks to the win, the Capitals pushed their NHL-leading point total to 94, and are closing in on clinching their third consecutive Southeast Division title — which could happen by the time the homestand ends and the team heads to Chicago in 10 days for a nationally-televised game against the Blackhawks.
The Capitals were sloppy out of the gate, allowing the Lighting some good chances on Semyon Varlamov early. Varlamov, who was making his first outing since getting criticized by coach Bruce Boudreau in a loss to Ottawa on Feb. 11 — which is Washington’s only regulation loss in their last 19 games (16-1-2).
But Eric Fehr got Washington in front with a nice individual effort, as he intercepted a bad Lightning clearing attempt at center ice, then moved into the Tampa Bay zone and then rifled the puck just inside the top corner of the net for a 1-0 Washington lead with 6:10 gone. The goal had a delayed reaction from players and fans as it originally appeared to hit the crossbar, but the referee and replay confirmed the puck did cross the goal line before coming back out of the cage.
The tally shifted momentum Washington’s way, and the Caps put some good chances on Tampa netminder Mike Smith in the ensuing minutes.
Walker nearly made it 2-0 just over a minute later when he couldn’t quite corral a puck Smith mishandled in front of his own net, but Washington got their first power-play chance of the night on the ensuing faceoff. Alex Ovechkin make a strong bid for his 43rd goal of the season by one-timing a pass, but Smith was able to come up with the save and keep the Lightning down just one despite the flurry.
Thanks to Smith’s strong play early, Tampa Bay was able to tie the game after a Knuble hooking penalty left Washington short-handed, as Steve Downie was left all alone in front of Varlamov and he tipped a Kurtis Foster drive past the Caps’ netminder with 8:05 left in the period.
Washington did get a nice chance to retake the lead in the period’s final minute as Belanger bid on his first goal as a Cap, but was stopped and the score stayed 1-1 after 20 minutes.
The Caps opened up the second period with a flurry, and regained the lead 2:27 into the period, as Knuble converted on a Brooks Laich feed to restore the lead for Washington.
Ovechkin then had an excellent chance to up the Capitals lead just two minutes later, but the puck skipped over his stick while he attempted a backhand on a breakaway and it bounced out of harm’s way.
Knuble added his second goal of the night with 8:21 gone in the frame, as he turned on a partially blocked Nicklas Backstrom shot and redirected it past Smith for a 3-1 edge and his 25th of the campaign.
However, Tampa Bay answered quickly, cutting the lead back to one as Vinny Lecavalier took a Martin St. Louis feed and fired it past Varlamov just :42 after Knuble’s second tally.
Smith got a bit of help from his lumber with seven minutes to play, as despite losing his goal stick in the crease, it made a save on a shot that eluded Smith while laying across the goal mouth.
The Caps then got themselves in some penalty trouble, taking two straight minors, but thanks to a nice couple of blocks from Backstrom — who despite breaking his stick — stopped three consecutive Tampa Bay shots while the Caps were on a 4-on-3 disadvantage.
““I don’t know how many other superstars in the league would be doing that on a [4-on-3].” Caps coach Bruce Boudreau remarked afterwards. “That’s what makes him special. It was definitely a turning point [in the game].”
The third period was delayed briefly thanks to an issue with the building’s lighting, as the Verizon Center remained dimly lit even after the teams returned to the ice. The two teams took a while to warm up as well, with Tampa Bay getting some good chances to even the score but Varlamov held the fort despite some close calls.
However, the two teams then traded goals just after the halfway mark of the period with the team’s newest grinder scoring a pair of tallies.
Walker then scored his first goal as a Cap with 9:49 to play, collecting a pass from and beating Smith through the five-hole to restore Washington’s two-goal lead — although just briefly.
Just :24 after Walker’s tally, Lecavailer broke in alone down the wing, faked a shot and beat Varlamov to cut the lead back down to one.
Steve Stamkos then tied the game with 7:32 left to play, notching his 38th goal of the season by converting Mattias Ohlund pass from behind the net anad beating Varlamov.
Despite blowing a two-goal lead, Washington broke back on top for good just :41 later, thanks to Walker, who collected a Green feed and beat Smith with a shot the goaltender just got a piece of, but not enough as it rolled in the cage to give the Caps a 5-4 lead.
“Most of you know my stats [just 3 goals coming into tonight’s game] and they’re not a huge part of my game, but you like to chip in where you can,” Walker said. “Definitely makes you feel good … It’s nice to chip in and help out, but like I said, the two points are what I’m looking for every night.”
“We stuck right with the best team in the league for however many minutes before we tied it up,” Stamkos said afterwards. “And then the next shift they get one. That’s a killer.”
The Caps did hold on for the win, moving to 24-3-3 at home, the fewest regulation losses in the league this season.
“We need to get the idea that these last 20 games [after the break] are going to be a lot harder than the first ,” Knuble said of the team’s effort. “Everybody got a chance to go away and every team realizes the situation when they get back … We can’t just slough off and hope that someone makes a play to score a goal or keep it out.”
Washington, who hasn’t dropped a game at home since losing to Carolina back on Dec. 28, now will face the New York Rangers Saturday at Verizon Center.