WASHINGTON -- After 18 months and two coaching changes, the Washington Capitals finally find themselves alone atop the Southeast Division standings.
Thanks to a herculean stretch by captain Alex Ovechkin, the Capitals have climbed from 15th place in the Eastern Conference to sole possession of third.
With Sunday night's 4-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning at the Verizon Center, the Capitals moved two points ahead of the idle Jets atop the Southeast Division, and Washington still has a game in hand on Winnipeg.
The last time the Capitals led the Southeast was in the first month of last season, when Bruce Boudreau was head coach. He was later replaced by Dale Hunter, who was subsequently replaced by Adam Oates.
It was Oates' idea to move Ovechkin from left wing to right wing, and after some early growing pains, the Capitals' 27-year-old captain has flourished.
Ovechkin scored his 24th and 25th goals of the season Sunday, and Joel Ward set up a goal by John Carlson before netting the game-winner a few minutes later as the Capitals rallied back from two one-goal deficits. Ovechkin potted an empty-netter with 4.4 seconds remaining.
"Right now I feel pretty good," Ovechkin said. "We're winning games, and that's the most important thing. Of course I'm happy I'm scoring goals, but in the beginning of the year, it was a pretty hard time for all of the organization, and right now we're back on track."
The Capitals are 18-9-1 since starting the season 2-8-1 under their first-year head coach.
Washington (20-17-2) is 10-3-1 in its past 14 games, and Ovechkin has 16 goals and seven assists in that span. With his two goals, he tied Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos for the NHL lead.
"He looks faster," Oates said of Ovevchkin. "He's getting more touches, and because of that, I think he's more involved in the game."
The Lightning's playoff hopes took a big blow with the loss. Tampa Bay (16-20-2) fell to 2-2-1 under new coach Jon Cooper, and the Lightning remain eight points behind the eighth-place New York Islanders with 10 games to play.
"The reality is that we're eight points out of the division and probably more than that, eight out of the eight seed," Cooper said. "We're getting better as a team. The problem is we're just running out of time. ...
"Ultimately, you see what these guys have, character-wise, because they have every right to throw in the towel and say, 'Oh, well, we're too far out.' Until we get to that mark that says we're out, we keep going."
Despite playing his first game since March 16 and getting his first home start since Feb. 5, Washington goaltender Michal Neuvirth was sharp, turning aside 28 of 30 shots to improve to 3-5-1.
"I felt like it was my first game of the year," said Neuvirth, who has appeared in 11 of the Caps' 40 games. "I missed playing here."
Just as they had one night earlier against the Florida Panthers, the Capitals used a strong second period to grab a 3-2 lead.
After Vincent Lecavalier and Alex Killorn gave Tampa a 2-1 lead, the Caps received even-strength goals from Carlson and Ward to head into the third period with a one-goal advantage.
Washington tied the game at 1 early in the second period. Ovechkin crashed the net and deflected a Jack Hillen shot over Tampa Bay goalie Ben Bishop at 3:14.
Killorn restored the Lightning's one-goal lead less than four minutes later when he avoided a diving sweep check by Hillen and beat Neuvirth between the pads.
That's when the Capitals turned it up a notch.
Ward set up Carlson with a lead pass that allowed Washington's 23-year-old defenseman to cross the blue line and step into slap shot that sailed over Bishop's left shoulder.
A little more than three minutes later, Ward rumbled down the left wing, got a step on defenseman Eric Brewer and jammed a low-percentage shot through Bishop for his eighth goal of the season, two short of his season total from last season.
"It's very disappointing," Bishop said. "We still have 11 games left, so we're not going to throw the towel in until we're out of it. We're not thinking we're out of it, so we're not going to quit."
NOTES: The Capitals were without two of their top three left wings. Brooks Laich and newly acquired Martin Erat each sat out with lower-body injuries. Oates said Erat is "way better" than expected after being checked into the boards from behind Saturday night. Laich will visit with a specialist Tuesday. Wingers Eric Fehr and Aaron Volpatti took the spots of Laich and Erat in the lineup. ... Hillen became a father for the second time on Saturday when his wife gave birth to a boy. ... Martin St. Louis recorded the 899th point of his NHL career with a first-period assist on Lecavalier's power-play goal. He moved past Ray Ferraro and into 98th on the NHL's all-time scoring list, one point behind Tony Amonte. ... With the arrival of Bishop (6-foot-7), the Lightning now have the tallest goaltending tandem in NHL history. Anders Lindback is 6-foot-6. ... The Capitals return to action Tuesday night in Montreal against the Canadiens, then play six of their final eight at home. ... The Lightning concluded their three-game road trip in Washington. They begin a two-game home set Tuesday night when they face the Ottawa Senators, followed by a visit from the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Lightning finish with five of their final 10 games on home ice.