WASHINGTON -- Alexander Semin stole the show.
With all the pregame talk about the first matchup of the season between NHL scoring leader Steven Stamkos of Tampa Bay and Washington's Alex Ovechkin, Semin outshone them both with a third-period hat trick and a pair of assists. The five-point performance powered the Capitals to a 6-3 victory against the Lightning on Thursday night.
The big night gives Semin 12 goals -- second in the NHL to Stamkos -- and 21 points, fourth in the League behind Stamkos, Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby.
"We'll ride it for as long as it goes, but he's pretty on right now," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. "Everything he's touching is turning to gold."
Nicklas Backstrom had four assists, including the primary setup on all of Semin's goals. Ovechkin had a goal and a pair of assists as Washington's top line dominated the contest after being reunited after the first intermission.
It was the sixth straight victory for the Capitals, who lead the NHL with 24 points and now have a six-point cushion over the second-place Lightning in the Southeast Division. The Bolts had hoped this would be a night to prove they can compete with Washington for the division crown.
Instead, the loss proved to be a costly one for Tampa Bay. Captain Vinny Lecavalier did not play in the third period after being injured earlier in the game. Lecavalier said he has a broken bone in his hand and expects to miss three to four weeks.
"Vinny was playing so good the last four games," Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher said. "He got two posts in the first period. That's the story of [the last] four games. He could've had three points every game. Just real bad luck for him - I feel for him."
Stamkos won a draw that led to Ryan Malone's power-play goal that the score at 2-2 just 2:43 into the third period before Semin, Backstrom and Ovechkin went to work.
Sixteen seconds after Semin drew a penalty for his team's first man advantage of the game, he settled a pass from Backstrom in the right circle and snapped a shot off Lightning goalie Dan Ellis' glove and into the net at 4:33.
Semin's second goal was a blistering one-timer from a little higher in the right circle at 10:46. He had helped start the play by winning a battle for the puck in the left corner and starting the cycle with a pass behind the net before he moved into position and Backstrom found him.
"[Semin] is so smart - I thought he was in the wrong position," Boudreau said. "But when you look at the replay and what we talked about before the beginning of the game he was in the right position. We wanted to take the puck from one side because they surround the puck with four or five guys and get it to the other side and make them run around. Evidently, he knew what he was doing."
Stamkos pulled the Lightning within a goal at 4-3 with his League-leading 14th of the season less than two minutes later. Martin St. Louis carried the puck toward the right corner before sending it in front to Stamkos, who roofed a shot past Washington netminder Michal Neuvirth.
Semin nearly completed his hat trick shortly after that, but he couldn't convert a breakaway and the puck bounced into the left corner. Undeterred, he went and collected it before finding Ovechkin trailing the play -- Ovechkin's one-timer from the left circle beat Ellis at 15:08 to restore the Caps' two-tally advantage.
He did finish the hat trick with 15.6 seconds remaining by hitting the empty net to complete his big night.
"In principle, nothing has changed for me personally - I'm just going out there and playing," Semin said through a translator. "At the same time [Backstrom, Ovechkin and I] have been together for such a long time and we know each other, so it is easy to go out there and we don't have to think."
This is not Semin's first hot start to a season. Two years ago he had a five-point game on Nov. 12 and took over the League lead with 13 goals and 27 points. He was hurt in the next game and didn't have another multi-point performance until mid-January.
There is reason for optimism, because Semin has been more consistent defensively this season and doesn't appear to be taking shifts off like he has in the past. His second goal was a prime example of the extra work he is putting in.
"He's a great player with a lot of skills," Backstrom said. "He's a sniper out there. He can score. I haven't seen Alex play as well as he is right now."
Neither Stamkos nor Ovechkin did anything offensively in the first two periods. Instead, Teddy Purcell gave Tampa Bay the lead with the only goal of the first period, while Tom Poti and Mike Knuble connected in the second to give the Capitals a 2-1 lead after 40 minutes.
Poti had missed eight straight games and 11 of 13 because of a lower-body injury, but he returned and tied the game 1-1 at 2:21 of the second period. Semin received a pass from Backstrom after taking a direct route from the Capitals' bench to the high slot and put a shot on net. Poti was pinching in from the right point and backhanded the rebound from inside the circle just under the crossbar and in for his first goal since March 8.
Knuble, who went 13 games without a goal before scoring Tuesday night in New York, scored his second in as many contests to give Washington the lead at 7:51. Brooks Laich's shot went wide of the net to the right, but Knuble was below the goal line with his back to the end boards to backhand the puck just inside the post for his third of the season.
Purcell got his second of the season by swatting the rebound of Sean Bergenheim's shot past Neuvirth midway through the first period. The Capitals have now allowed the first goal in 12 of their 16 games.
"The first period wasn't so good," Backstrom said. "We didn't work hard enough, but we worked ourselves back into the game and we finished it strong. We have to find a way to start games better."
Boucher said the Lightning paid for missing several chances to extend their lead before the Caps' offensive came alive.
"It's 1-0 for us and we missed I don't know how many goals in the first period," he said. "It could've been 3-0 and a different game for us … every little mistake we made they capitalized on it."
|Teddy Purcell (2) ASST: Sean Bergenheim (4), Nate Thompson (4)|
1 - 0 TBL
|Tom Poti (1) ASST: Alexander Semin (8), Nicklas Backstrom (11)|
1 - 1 Tie
|Mike Knuble (3) ASST: Brooks Laich (7), Tomas Fleischmann (4)|
2 - 1 WSH
|PPG - Ryan Malone (2) ASST: Martin St. Louis (10), Steven Stamkos (12)|
2 - 2 Tie
|PPG - Alexander Semin (10) ASST: Nicklas Backstrom (12), Alex Ovechkin (13)|
3 - 2 WSH
|Alexander Semin (11) ASST: Nicklas Backstrom (13), Alex Ovechkin (14)|
4 - 2 WSH
|Steven Stamkos (14) ASST: Dominic Moore (2), Martin St. Louis (11)|
4 - 3 WSH
|Alex Ovechkin (9) ASST: Alexander Semin (9), Jeff Schultz (4)|
5 - 3 WSH
|EN - Alexander Semin (12) ASST: Nicklas Backstrom (14), John Carlson (7)|
6 - 3 WSH
|Mike Knuble Roughing against Victor Hedman|
|John Carlson Delaying Game - Puck over glass|
|Brooks Laich Interference against Ryan Malone|
|Matt Bradley Fighting against Adam Hall|
|Adam Hall Fighting against Matt Bradley|
|John Erskine Boarding against Dominic Moore|
|Dominic Moore Hooking against Alexander Semin|