WASHINGTON - The Washington Capitals are within two points of first place in the Southeast Division, a team definitely on the uptick after sweating out a win that included a first career hat trick from Troy Brouwer and a goal from Alex Ovechkin.
And if, along the way, they had to add to the misery of the Tampa Bay Lightning—the team that swept Washington out of last year's playoffs—so be it.
The Capitals beat the Lightning 4-3 in a temperamental game Friday night, giving Washington its sixth win in eight games and Tampa Bay its sixth straight loss.
"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 and in three distinct circumstances—power play, even strength, empty net. The right wing, in his sixth NHL season, pushed his goal tally to 14 on the season.
Ovechkin scored his 18th goal, and Tomas Vokoun made 28 saves to follow up his 1-0 shutout of the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday. Dennis Wideman, named to his first All-Star game on Thursday, had two assists. Washington is 11-9-1 since Dale Hunter replaced Bruce Boudreau as coach in late November.
And to show how particularly they're getting about their victories, the Capitals' feelings were tempered by the fact that they blew a 3-0 lead and allowed two goals in the final 4 minutes.
"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, on the other hand, would settle for a win of any kind. Still without a victory in 2012, the they committed three penalties—high sticking on Pavel Kubina, interference on Martin St. Louis and delay of game on Eric Brewer—before some of the fans had settled into the seats.
The Capitals scored on two of the power plays, putting the Lightning in a hole before the game was 6 minutes old. And this after Tampa Bay allowed four first first-period goals in a 5-2 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes the night before.
"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 criticized his team's attitude, work ethic and discipline after the loss to the Hurricanes, but he liked his team's effort after outshooting the Capitals 31-20.
"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."
Steven Stamkos scored his league-leading 30th goal, and Tom Pyatt and Vincent Lecavalier also netted for the Lightning. Stamkos' power-play goal made the score 3-2 with 3:24 remaining. Brouwer's empty-netter restored the two-goal lead, and Lecavalier scored just before the final horn.
There was plenty of chippiness throughout. Washington's Karl Alzner got in his first career fight, and Stamkos took exception when Brouwer rammed St. Louis in the boards. Stamkos came from halfway across the rink to retaliate, and he and Brouwer were both sent to the penalty box—Stamkos for roughing, and Brouwer for roughing and boarding.
When all was settled, the Capitals found themselves on the heels of the first-place Florida Panthers, while the Lightning are struggling to avoid the cellar.
"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."
NOTES: Washington C Nicklas Backstrom missed his fourth straight game since taking an elbow to the head. ... Capitals D Mike Green, on long-term injured reserve with a groin injury, can't return until Feb. 1 at the earliest. ... The Capitals allowed a power-play goal at the Verizon Center for the first time in 11 home games under Hunter. ... Stamkos' goal ended a five-game power-play scoring drought for the Lightning.
Joseph White can be reached at http://twitter.com/JGWhiteAP