It's taken half a season, but the Washington Capitals look like a team that's starting to hit its stride.
The Caps moved within two points of first-place Florida in the Southeast Division by fending off the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-3 on Friday night. Troy Brouwer scored three times for his first NHL hat trick and Alex Ovechkin also scored as the Caps won for the sixth time in eight games. The Panthers lost 4-1 to Pittsburgh.
Handing the Lightning -- the team that swept them out of the playoffs last spring -- its sixth consecutive loss in a game that was more than a little bit chippy was an extra bonus.
"Those games just mean a lot more. You're into it more. It's got a more of a different feel to it than a boring go-along-with-it game," Brouwer said. "These get you into it right from the beginning. Lot of battles out there."
Brouwer scored in each period, completing his hat trick with an empty-net goal that pushed his season total to 14. Ovechkin scored his 18th goal, and Tomas Vokoun followed up a 30-save performance in Wednesday's 1-0 shutout of Pittsburgh by stopping 28 shots.
Washington is 11-9-1 since Dale Hunter replaced Bruce Boudreau as coach in late November -- although this one nearly got away. The Caps struggled after grabbing a 3-0 lead and allowed two goals in the final four minutes -- Brouwer's empty-netter wound up as the game-winner.
"You always like to close them out, be sound defensively, and when they score late, no one's going to be happy about it," Hunter said. "It's a win, but everybody wants to be sound."
The Lightning were their own worst enemies -- Tampa Bay gave the Caps three power plays in the first 5:07, and Washington connected on two of them. It was the third time in four nights that the Lightning trailed by multiple goals after one period -- they were down 2-0 to Vancouver on Tuesday and 4-1 against Carolina on Thursday.
"We're on a back-to-back. They're waiting for us. We go to bed at the 4 in the morning," Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher said. "We're the ones that need some help, and it's the opposite. We get two penalties just for absolutely nothing, calls that are never called during the entire year. So right away they give them a break, and they capitalize on it right away, so we're behind the 8-ball the rest of the way."
Boucher wasn't happy with his team's attitude, work ethic and discipline after the loss to the Hurricanes, but he liked his team's effort after they outshot the Capitals 31-20 and pushed Washington to the final buzzer -- Vincent Lecavalier scored with less than 11 seconds left and Tampa Bay nearly scored before the game ended.
"What's tough is we're not getting the breaks," he said. "We missed how many goals in the last five minutes? It's been like that for a long time; that's the story of our season. We've got injuries over injuries and adversity after adversity, and the breaks are just not coming at all."
Power-play goals by Ovechkin and Brouwer gave the Caps a 2-0 lead just 5:45 into the game. Brouwer made it 3-0 early in the second period before Tom Pyatt got the Lightning on the board at 17:06.
NHL goal-scoring leader Steven Stamkos made things interesting by scoring his 30th goal of the season, a power-play tally with 3:24 left.
But in the end, all the Lightning got was another loss -- much to the delight of the team they bounced out of the second round last spring.
"We're in the same division, and we had a tough regular season with them last year, let alone the playoffs," Washington forward Matt Hendricks said. "We want to beat them every time we play them."
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