By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 13, 2011; 12:42 AM
TAMPA - The Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning entered their fourth meeting of the season Wednesday tied in points and with a crucial opportunity to gain ground in the battle for Southeast Division supremacy. But when the puck dropped at St. Pete Times Forum, it didn't take long to realize which team would put together the performance necessary to sit alone atop the standings.
Tampa Bay defeated the Capitals, 3-0, to take a two-point lead in the division as Washington spotted its opponent a two-goal lead in the first period for the second game in as many nights. Unlike 24 hours earlier against the Florida Panthers, Washington wasn't able to mount a comeback against the Lightning.
Washington returns home after claiming one of four available points on this two-game road trip against divisional foes and is only seven points ahead of ninth-place Carolina in the Eastern Conference.
"I don't think we did our game plan very well right from the start," defenseman Scott Hannan said. "That's two games in a row I don't think we were ready to start the game. We fell behind early, and it's tough to come back in this league. We're struggling to score goals, and if you spot them two at the beginning of the game it's going to be a tough start to come back [from] and it showed."
Tampa Bay had the benefit of two days off before this showdown, but that alone shouldn't have accounted for the Lightning's considerable spark and territorial advantage at the outset. By falling behind early, the Capitals only played to the Lightning's defensive priorities. Veteran goaltender Dwayne Roloson made 23 saves to post a second shutout in two games against Washington since being acquired by Tampa Bay. It marked the sixth time the Capitals, who are averaging 2.5 goals over their past 10 games, have been held off the scoresheet this season.
In addition to the need to rediscover their offense, the Capitals' inability to start games well on a consistent basis is becoming a growing concern. Washington is 12-1-4 this season when notching the first goal.
"We come in every game and say we've got to start out hot, we've got to start out and take it to them and play with the lead because that's what we're best at," defenseman John Carlson said. "But it just hasn't seemed to be going our way in the first period."
All four Lightning lines created pressure in the Capitals' zone in the first period. A fluky bounce led to the first goal against Semyon Varlamov, who finished with 35 saves. An initial shot by Nate Thompson hit Varlamov's shoulder and ricocheted back out front where utility forward Dominic Moore chipped it into the net for a 1-0 Tampa Bay lead less than four minutes into the contest.
Sean Bergenheim swatted a rebound out of the air just past the 16-minute mark for a two-goal lead. Washington would have opportunities against Roloson, including a handful on its first power play of the game, but it rarely was able to create second and third chances.
The crushing blow to Washington's hopes of a second consecutive comeback came late in the second period. The Capitals created some of their best chances in the middle period as Varlamov's control sharpened. But 1 minute 42 seconds before the second intermission, Simon Gagne recovered a loose puck inside the Tampa Bay blue line to create a two-on-none going the other way. Gagne ripped the puck past Varlamov's blocker to make it 3-0. At the start of the third period, the Lightning was outshooting the Capitals, 32-18.
"I definitely think it was a backbreaker," Coach Bruce Boudreau said of Gagne's goal. "Any time you're within two you're within striking distance."
With a three-goal lead, Tampa Bay was able to focus on clogging up the neutral zone and outmaneuvering the Capitals' forecheck. Washington seldom gained entrance into the offensive zone while maintaining possession of the puck. As soon as the Capitals made their way below the faceoff circles nearest Roloson, turnovers allowed Tampa Bay to extinguish any possible threats.
Capitals notes: Defenseman Tom Poti left the game with 2:54 remaining in the second period and did not return. Poti has appeared in only 21 games this season while being constantly bothered by injuries, including a recurring groin problem and most recently a concussion. . . .
In order to make room for Boyd Gordon on the active roster, Washington reassigned forward Brian Willsie to Hershey on Wednesday afternoon.