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Washington Capitals fall victim to penalties and Tampa Bay Lightning, 7-4

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 13, 2010;

TAMPA - One of the Washington Capitals' hallmarks the past two months had been their ability to remain disciplined in the face of adversity. But on Tuesday, frustrated by a second straight slow start, they lost their cool.

Alex Ovechkin and his teammates couldn't stay out of the penalty box -- or stop Tampa Bay's power play -- and suffered a 7-4 defeat at St. Pete Times Forum that was as wild as it was sloppy.

"Obviously the last two games in the first period we weren't ready to play. That's got to be my fault," said Coach Bruce Boudreau, whose team was whistled for 13 penalties. "It's difficult to come back when a team gets a 4-1 lead on you in the first period."

The NHL's top-ranked offense managed to do that just that, anyway. Behind a pair of goals from Mike Green, the Capitals rallied from that early three-goal deficit. But instead of "getting over the hump," Martin St. Louis scored the third of the Lightning's four power-play goals with two minutes remaining in the second period to put Tampa Bay ahead for good, 5-4.

The defeat ended the Capitals' 12-game winning streak against the Lightning and marked the most goals they had surrendered since the final game of the the regular season a year ago, a loss by the same score to the Florida Panthers in Sunrise, Fla. The loss was also Boudreau's first to the Lightning.

"We were sleeping in the first period and they took advantage of their opportunities," defenseman Brian Pothier said. "I felt like we didn't really show up in the first for some reason. I think we were frustrated with ourselves. We were napping in the first and we weren't getting anything done. That's when the discipline [problems] creep in."

A day that got off to a strange start and only got stranger during a game that featured both teams switching goaltenders and Ovechkin squaring off with Lightning agitator Steve Downie not once, but twice.

The morning skate had to be called off because the new sheet of ice put down after the circus left town Sunday wasn't ready, disrupting the players' road routine and creating a slush-like playing surface that Pothier called "horrific."

With that as a backdrop, the Capitals had put forth one of their worst first-period efforts of the season - one game after being outshot 18-6 in the opening 20 minutes in Atlanta.

Vinny Lecavalier opened the scoring only 6 minutes 34 seconds into the contest after a bad pass by Mike Knuble, whose rink-wide pass in the offensive zone was behind Nicklas Backstrom.

Steven Stamkos stretched the lead to 2-0 on the power play after Kurtis Foster's point shot ricocheted off the end boards. Stamkos, the Lightning's fabulous sophomore center, snagged the rebound near the goal line, and with a nifty backhander, snapped it past an unsuspecting Michal Neuvirth (four goals on 15 shots).

Alexander Semin cut the Capitals' deficit to 2-1 about two minutes later, but it provided only a brief reprieve for the visitors. Stamkos's second power-play tally of the period, scored through a screen after a long rebound surrendered by Neuvirth, made it 3-1. Then, just 67 seconds later, Stephane Veilleux ended Neuvirth's night when his shot hit the goalie in the chest and then rolled over his shoulder into the net to send the Lightning into the second period with a 4-1 lead.

José Theodore (18 saves) was in Washington's net at the start of the second period, which saw the Capitals tie the score at 4 behind Green.

On his first goal, the defenseman's point shot hit the post, then caromed off Mike Smith's skate before trickling over the goal line. Smith was pulled moments later because of a neck strain he had suffered during a first-period collision with Brooks Laich, giving way to Antero Niittymaki. Niittymaki, though, struggled after coming off the bench without any warmup.

Eric Fehr beat the Lightning goalie with a shot from the top of the circle to make it 4-3. Then Green tied the game with his second power-play goal of the night.

But Tampa Bay's power play was even better on this night. With Laich in the penalty box again, St. Louis blasted a shot past Theodore's blocker at 17:28 to give Tampa Bay a 5-4 lead - and three power-play goals on three opportunities - heading into the third period. Laich was also in the penalty box for Stamkos's first goal.

"The goal at the end of the second period, if we had gone in tied, it might have been a little different," Boudreau said. "We made a push and we didn't get far enough. When you make that push, you have to get over the hump. I don't think we deserved to win anyway."

Tempers flared with six minutes remaining in the game when Ovechkin and Downie fought - well, almost. After the two had been sent off for roughing, they came out of the box, they tangled again, threw off their gloves and removed their helmets.

But before either player started throwing punches, Capitals winger Matt Bradley jumped Downie. Bradley received two minutes for instigating, five for fighting and a 10-minute misconduct.

"I bet they would do the exact same thing if someone was squaring off with Stamkos," Bradley said. "You don't let guys like that go after your best players. No matter who it is, we're not going to let someone like Downie go after someone like him."

Ovechkin, who was whistled for three penalties, added: "It's hockey -- it's tough. He do a great job. Thanks to him for this."

Ovechkin didn't need any help when asked to pinpoint the reason for the loss, though.

"We were not ready," he said. "We tried to be too casual, too cute and it cost us four goals."

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