TAMPA -- For the Tampa Bay Lightning, each game is becoming the Steven Stamkos Show.
Stamkos became the NHL's first 40-goal scorer this season, and his breakaway goal early in the second period proved to be the winner as the Lightning held off the Washington Capitals 2-1 on Saturday night.
Stamkos stole the puck at his own blue line, raced in alone on Tomas Vokoun, deked and scored at 1:50 of the middle period to give the Lightning a 2-0 lead. He has three goals and five points in his last two games. Stamkos leads the NHL with 40 goals -- Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin is next with 32 -- and is third in the scoring race with 67 points, three behind Malkin.
"It's nice," Stamkos said of reaching 40 goals for the team-record third time in his four-year NHL career. "There are milestones you set before the year. It's nice to get it in a win, especially this time of year when we're battling for a playoff spot."
Tom Pyatt opened the scoring for the Lightning at 2:10 of the first period when he picked up the puck as it slid slowly through Vokoun's pads and pushed it over the goal line after the goaltender had slowed Teddy Purcell's shot. Pyatt's goal was his sixth of the season and extended his career high in goals, while Purcell's assist gave him seven points in the last seven games.
Brooks Laich got the Caps on the board at 9:31 with his 11th of the season -- the only one of their 24 shots on goal that beat Mathieu Garon, who improved to 4-1-1 against Washington and 7-2-2 over his last 11 starts. Garon got plenty of help from his teammates, who blocked 23 shots -- including five by defenseman Brett Clark.
"Clark is Mr. Blocked Shot," Lightning coach Guy Boucher said. "He does it the best and it makes a big difference. We've got dedication here to do that. I don't think people realize, this is a hard thing coming at you. It could crack your head in half; it's going 100 mph so these guys are real warriors. I always say, when I see the players come up that tunnel, I always have the same feeling and thought: ‘These are gladiators. That's what it is.'"
Boucher praised the defensive effort of his team and had particular approval for one line.
"It was a good defensive effort," he said. "Tonight, I thought we played solid in every aspect of the game. I think one thing is that we have (Nate) Thompson, (Adam) Hall and (Ryan) Malone on the ice against the top line of the opponents. Tonight, they were on against (Troy) Brouwer and (Alex) Ovechkin and they shut that line down. I think they did a terrific job."
Ovechkin finished with four shots on net and had another three blocked. Brouwer, who entered the game with five goals in three games against the Lightning, managed just two shots and had another two knocked down.
Washington coach Dale Hunter agreed with Boucher's assessment.
"They clogged up the ice pretty good," Hunter said. "We were definitely trying to be too cute, but they blocked a lot of shots and we had trouble getting shots through."
Vokoun finished with 21 saves in a losing effort and said his team has to compete harder.
"This is the kind of team this is," Vokoun said of the Lightning. "This is how they are going to play. For some reason, we played like we didn't want to play against them. We didn't make it tough on them."
The best news for Washington was the return of star defenseman Mike Green, who hadn't played since early January due to a groin injury. He's played only 11 games this season -- and just four since Oct. 22, when he was injured during a 7-1 win against Detroit that capped Washington's 7-0-0 start. His absence is a big reason the Caps are mired in ninth place, one point behind eighth-place Toronto and two in back of first-place Florida in the Southeast Division
Tampa Bay, one of three teams tied with 58 points, six behind the Leafs, improved to 17-9-2 at home. The Lightning conclude a four-game homestand against the Anaheim Ducks on Tuesday night.
"I always felt and I still feel that our team trademark is ‘fight, fight, fight,' " Boucher said. "Whenever you can dream it you can do it and we just want to keep on improving. Our motto keeps on being ‘get better today'. So that keeps our focus very, very narrow on the things we control.
"People talk about mental toughness, I always say mental training. Like everything else, you train the body and train the mind to go in certain directions because everything is a choice, and you want to make the choice to think of the right things to get the right results."
Stamkos has certainly been getting the right results as he became the first player in Lightning history to reach the 40-goal mark three times. He is just the fifth player in NHL history to record three consecutive seasons with at least 40 goals in each prior to his 23rd birthday, joining Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Dale Hawerchuk and Ovechkin.
Stamkos has 159 goals and 299 points in 301 NHL games since the Lightning made him the first player taken in the 2008 draft.
"It's a little surreal being mentioned with those guys," Stamkos said. "I can't believe last game was my 300th in the League. It's crazy to think how time flies by, but I'm just trying to enjoy it and trying to improve. I'm just trying to do everything I can to help this team win.