WASHINGTON (AP) — The plan was simple: Score early against a weary opponent and ride the momentum the rest of the way.
The Tampa Bay Lightning carried out the strategy perfectly, turning a big first period into a huge 4-2 victory over the Washington Capitals on Tuesday night in a showdown between division leaders in the Eastern Conference.
Washington had played in Buffalo one day earlier, and that played significantly into the game-plan of Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper.
“The big thing for us is, we knew they played (Monday). The key for that is you’ve got to get the lead,” Cooper said.
Brayden Point sandwiched two goals around a tally by Chris Kunitz to make it 3-0 after the first period. That proved to be enough of a cushion for goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who stopped 35 shots to earn his NHL-leading 35th win.
“A good first period, and then we kind of hung on,” Point said.
After Alex Ovechkin notched his NHL-high 36th goal for Washington to make it 3-2 at 11:02 of the third, Nikita Kucherov clinched it with a breakaway goal with 7:02 remaining.
The victory improved Tampa Bay’s NHL-best record to 40-17-3 and kept the Lightning ahead of surging Boston in the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference.
“I liked a lot what happened in the first period. I thought we deserved to have a 3-0 lead,” Cooper said. “There are a lot of positives to take out of the game, especially the fact that we got two points.”
Lars Eller scored a power-play goal for the Capitals, who lead Pittsburgh by one point in the Metropolitan Division.
Coach Barry Trotz was encouraged by his team’s play over the last 40 minutes, but lamented Washington’s miscues in the early-going.
“We made three mistakes and they got all three of them,” Trotz said. “They didn’t have very many shots … but they had three goals and we dug ourselves a hole.”
Seeking to end a five-game losing streak in Washington, Tampa Bay took control early behind Point, a 21-year-old playing in his second NHL season. After Point beat Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby with a power-play goal at 2:30, Kunitz scored on a deflection at 16:00 before Point split two defenders and delivered a backhander for his 23rd goal of the season at 17:52.
“”That’s how we wanted to start off the game,” Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said.
It was the fifth career two-goal game for Point, who’s still seeking his first hat trick.
“You think about it for sure, but the win is the most important thing,” he said.
The All-Star center did, however, extend his point-scoring streak to five games.
Eller scored his 12th goal of the season at 9:32 of the second period, but Vasilevskiy stiffened after that.
“The goaltenders in this league are erasers,” Trotz said. “Tonight, their eraser was really good, and so we take the loss.”
NOTES: Kucherov leads Tampa Bay with 32 goals and 78 points. … One day after being obtained in trade with Chicago, Capitals D Michal Kempny participated in pre-game warmups but was scratched. … Holtby fell to 9-3-2 lifetime against Tampa Bay. … The Lightning won the season series 2-1. … Ovechkin is now six goals short of 600 for his career. He’s scored 43 against Tampa Bay in 65 games. … Washington fell to 20-9-2 at home but had its 395th consecutive sellout.
Lightning: At Ottawa on Thursday night, the second of three straight road games.
Capitals: At Florida on Thursday night. Series tied 1-1, with each team winning on road.
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