TAMPA — There’s no question the Washington Capitals would rather have picked up two points here Tuesday night instead of only one in an overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. But the mood in the visiting dressing room was more positive than morose as the Capitals prepared for the second leg of back-to-back games in Florida.
Washington erased a two-goal deficit and forced overtime in one of its better puck possession games in recent memory but ultimately fell, 4-3, to the Lightning when Steven Stamkos recorded the game-winner on a rebound 2 minutes 45 seconds into overtime.
By virtue of the single point they obtained in the overtime defeat, the Capitals moved into sole possession of first place in the Southeast Division and will enter Wednesday’s game at Florida with 56-55 edge on the Panthers in the standings.
“I thought we played a very good game,” said Brooks Laich, who finished with an assist but helped create Washington’s first and third goals. “We didn’t get the result — tough break. To go down 3-1, come back and get it to overtime and just before they scored we had a chance to win it. I thought we played a good game, [we can] build on this and play a better one tomorrow.”
Both teams looked to be shaking off rust from a long all-star break through much of the first period, with little in the way of sustained offense. But things picked up in the final four minutes of the period.
Laich crashed his way into the Lightning zone, driving the play toward the net and swatting a puck to his unguarded linemate. Matt Hendricks whiffed on his first chance but then sent a backhander past Tampa Bay netminder Mathieu Garon (26 saves) just inside the right post to give the Capitals a 1-0 lead with 3:05 remaining in the first.
On the third shift following Hendricks’s goal, though, Tampa Bay evened things at 1-1 when Steve Downie set up Teddy Purcell for a back-door one-timer. It was a play that Tomas Vokoun (27 saves) had little chance to stop in his 13th start in the past 15 games.
Just 65 seconds into the middle period Martin St. Louis made it 2-1 on a breakaway where he shot five-hole on Vokoun. The catalyst for that play was a collision between Vincent Lecavalier and Roman Hamrlik at the blue line that caused the defenseman to fall and made the Lightning captain offside, but the play continued on. Nate Thompson would fight off Hamrlik on a cycle later in the period for a chance in the slot that gave Tampa Bay a 3-1 edge 10:59 into the second.
The Capitals forced their way back into the game — and got a little luck of their own. A centering pass by Mathieu Perreault wound up redirecting off Thompson’s stick and past Garon to make it 3-2 with just under seven minutes remaining in the second. Washington was beginning to establish itself in the offensive zone, though, and creating better chances than it had in recent contests.
“I thought we worked in their end very well, thought we forechecked well, got the cycle going, created a lot of chances,” Coach Dale Hunter said. Washington “got down a couple quick goals but they never quit, kept working and getting chances.”
Vokoun made one of several key stops to keep the Capitals’ chance of earning points against Tampa Bay alive when he thwarted Stamkos on a breakaway less than three minutes into the third. The line of Laich, Hendricks and Troy Brouwer offered another boost soon after that save when their pressure in the Lightning zone resulted in the tying goal. Laich forced Matt Gilroy to cough the puck up and allowed Brouwer the opportunity for an open shot that made it 3-3 at 5:53 of the third.
The teams would exchange chances down the stretch in regulation but Washington began to take a simple, methodical approach of dumping the puck in and grinding away in the offensive zone to take time off the clock and create as much sustained offensive zone-time as possible. It was what allowed the Capitals to siphon a point, and the main element the players want to focus on as they turn their attention to Florida.
“We’re still going to work on the situations that we got ourselves into to get goals scored against us,” Brouwer said. “We cycled the puck a lot better tonight. We created chances from down low and that’s how we scored our goals. We were able to get pucks deep and as a result we had less turnovers, and we were able to come back from a couple goals — there were some positives we were able to take out of the game.”