By Gene Wang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 13, 2010; D01
One day after they became the first team to secure a division title this season, the Washington Capitals' bid to be the first to reach 100 points was put on hold temporarily in a 3-2 loss to the struggling Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday night at Verizon Center.
Two of the least likely players helped prevent the Capitals from reaching that milestone, as the Lightning's Matt Walker scored the go-ahead goal midway through the second period after Brandon Bochenski tied it at 1 in the first. Those two players entered the game with two goals combined.
Walker beat Capitals goalie Semyon Varlamov at 11 minutes 30 seconds with a slap shot almost immediately after a faceoff in Washington's zone. Tampa Bay center Nate Thompson won the draw and got the puck to Stephane Veilleux, who passed to an open Walker.
A few minutes later, the Lightning made it 3-1 thanks to a fluky bounce on a shot by Walker that deflected off center Vincent Lecavalier's shoulder and into the goal. After officials reviewed the play to determine whether it should stand, they awarded the goal to Lecavalier, and Tampa Bay was on its way to beating the league's best team, at least statistically.
"I think we all saw this coming," Capitals right wing Mike Knuble said. "After the [Olympic] break, it gets a little more difficult to score a lot of goals. You're not going to blow teams out. They're playing for their lives, and I don't know if Tampa's in the race or not, but we're going to see every team's best."
Washington has 99 points, the most in the NHL and 33 more than the Lightning at the start of the game, and was ensured of the Southeast Division crown after the Atlanta Thrashers lost on Thursday night. The Capitals won their sixth division title overall and became the first team to win three straight Southeast titles, but for significant stretches they hardly played like champions against the Lightning, which had lost seven straight times at Washington.
The Capitals lost in regulation for the first time in 16 home games and closed out their five-game home stand with a 3-1-1 record after losing to the team they beat 5-4 to start it. Varlamov also lost for the first time at home, falling to 8-1-1 at Verizon Center after stopping 24 of 27 shots.
"Just because he [faced] 20-some shots, it's not fair to look at the goalie and say, 'Hey listen, it was his fault,' " Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "We didn't do the job as forwards and defensemen. We stayed out too long. We got outworked, and we didn't' play the way we're capable of playing, and that's the reason we lost. It had nothing to do with the goaltending."
Washington did make it interesting down the stretch, when Brooks Laich got his 21st goal of the season with just more than eight minutes left in the third period to draw the Capitals within one. Laich got his stick on defenseman Mike Green's shot, and the puck landed on the ice to the right of Tampa Bay goalie Antero Niittymaki (28 saves). Laich then poked the loose puck into the goal, bringing the sellout crowd of 18,277 to its feet.
But Niittymaki stood his ground the rest of the game, including facing six skaters in the final minute when the Capitals pulled Varlamov.
"Once they started to believe they could win, they won every battle, and they outworked us," Boudreau said. "Pretty simple. You don't win if you don't work hard. I don't care who you are."
After an uneventful start to the game, both teams scored within minutes of each other to close the first period. The Capitals got the first goal on a power play when Tomas Fleischmann one-timed a pass from Alex Ovechkin and beat Niittymaki with 2:55 to play.
Washington's captain was in position to make the cross-ice pass to Fleischmann after Knuble controlled the puck in the corner and sent it on the mark to Ovechkin's stick. As his pass glided past Tampa Bay's crease, Fleischmann wound up, and Niittymaki had no chance.
The goal came a minute after Lightning center Paul Szczechura went to the penalty box for holding, and it made Fleischmann the sixth Capitals player with at least 20 goals. Washington has the most 20-goal scorers in the league, and two other players, Eric Fehr and Mike Green, are well within reach of that mark. Each has 17 goals this season.
The Capitals' lead didn't last, as Tampa Bay scored with 48 seconds remaining in the period courtesy of Bochenski, playing in just his 16th game this season. Bochenski collected the puck just inside the Capitals' blue line and put a slap shot past Varlamov, beating the goalie to his stick side.
"I think we just thought it was going to be easier than it was tonight," Knuble said. "We have to give our opponents a lot more respect than that."