WASHINGTON - Washington Capitals rookie goaltender Maxime Ouellet sat in front of his locker last night, a soft, boyish smile all over his face. The rookie - called up from the minors Saturday and told just yesterday morning he would start against the Southeast Division-leading Tampa Bay Lightning - had just made 38 saves and anchored the Capitals' 2-1 victory.
"We played good," said Ouellet, 22, who had a 2-0 lead on goals by Jeff Halpern and Anson Carter going into the third period. "I just had to make the first save and then the guys took away the rebounds. I'm pretty happy to be here and be able to take advantage of my chances."
This is the second time Ouellet has been called up this season. He is 2-2-1 with one shutout.
"Maxime will be the huge part of this story," said Capitals coach Glen Hanlon. "It was just the way he played his first game with us. He looked really comfortable to me and he made, in my opinion, two really critical saves - one in the second period and the other against [Martin] St. Louis with the game on the line when we were playing four-on-four. Max is a good goalie."
For a long time it looked as if Ouellet might get his second shutout. But the Lightning, which came here with a team record-tying six-game winning streak, scored when a shot by Vincent Lecavalier took a double bounce off the post and then Ouellet's facemask and into the net with 7:48 to play.
The Capitals' mini hot streak continued: 6-4-1-1 in the past 12 games. They are also 8-3-1-1 against Southeast Division opponents, including 2-1 against the Lightning (27-17-6-3). But Washington's overall record of 17-30-5-2 is still far behind the NHL leaders.
"We are looking at the short term," Hanlon said. "Overall, the picture isn't very healthy, so we're taking the approach that here's a game, let's go win it because it's fun. We're just going about our business on a day-to-day basis, understanding that it's enjoyable to win.
"Creating an enjoyable atmosphere is the first step. ... We're still not out of the playoffs, but we're not focusing in on it."
Instead, the Capitals are focusing on the immediate picture. Last night that included helping Ouellet succeed and continuing the improvement of what has become their top line. Robert Lang, Halpern and Carter are developing chemistry.
Carter helped Halpern score with a pass to Josef Boumedienne at 5:31 of the first period. Then at 10:48 of the second period Carter, off assists from defenseman Steve Eminger and Lang, scored his first goal since joining the Capitals on Jan. 23 as part of the trade that sent Jaromir Jagr to the New York Rangers.
Carter has three points in his past three games.
At the time of the trade, Capitals general manager George McPhee referred to the deal as a "mostly money" trade in which the Caps unloaded the bulk of Jagr's $11 million salary. But Carter is paying extra dividends.
"I've got a lot of pride," Carter said. "I want to come here and help the Caps do well."
Tampa Bay 0 0 1 - 1
Washington 1 1 0 - 2
First period-1, Washington, Halpern 10 (Boumedienne, Carter), 5:31. Penalties-Zubrus, Was (boarding), :14; Andreychuk, TB (ob.-hooking), 10:37; Grier, Was (hooking), 18:34. Second period-2, Washington, Carter 11 (Eminger, Lang), 10:48. Penalties-Sarich, TB, major (fighting), 17:07; Pettinger, Was, major (fighting), 17:07; Dingman, TB, major (fighting), 17:13; Peat, Was, major (fighting), 17:13; Kwiatkowski, Was (cross-checking), 18:41. Third period-3, Tampa Bay, Lecavalier 16 (Boyle, Stillman), 12:12. Penalties-Afanasenkov, TB (diving), 16:28; Kwiatkowski, Was (hooking), 16:28. Shots on goal-Tampa Bay 13-16-10-39. Washington 6-7-1-14. Power-play Opportunities-Tampa Bay 0 of 3; Washington 0 of 1. Goalies-Tampa Bay, Khabibulin 14-14-5 (14 shots-12 saves). Washington, Ouellet 2-2-1 (39-38). A-13,085 (18,277). T - 2:16.