Lightning 3, Capitals 2

The Washington Capitals began tonight's game in self-destruct mode -- taking careless penalties, fumbling away the puck, falling behind early -- and never recovered. The team has designated one period of every game this season for such maladies, overcoming them in some instances, but not this time.

The Tampa Bay Lightning scored the first three goals and defeated the Capitals, 3-2, at the St. Pete Times Forum. Washington's eight-game road trip continues Saturday against the Florida Panthers and ends Monday in Pittsburgh, with the team still striving for more consistency.

"I don't know what's the matter with the [locker] room when guys can't get fired up to play for first place," Coach Bruce Cassidy said. "I don't know if guys aren't used to it or they think it's no big deal or what, but to come out like that . . . it's unbelievable to me. I don't have the answer for it right now."

The Lightning, meantime, have been the NHL's most consistent team. The long-beleaguered club is the league's lone undefeated team with a 5-0-2 record, leading Washington in the Southeast Division.

The Capitals (4-3-0) gave this game to the upstart opposition in the first period, ignoring the fact that the officials were adhering strictly to the letter of the rulebook. Tampa Bay enjoyed five power plays in the opening period, including two five-on-three advantages. The Capitals gave up 15 or more shots in a period for the sixth time in seven games and surrendered the first goal for the fifth time.

Those issues were compounded by the fact that Washington's usually reliable power play failed to convert an extended two-man advantage, which could have turned this game quickly in its favor. Instead, Chris Dingman opened the scoring about 10 minutes into the game on a shift that Capitals defenseman Calle Johansson would rather forget.

Johansson muffed a shot at the point, allowing a two on one, and Tampa Bay center Vincent Lecavalier, who returned a week early from a knee injury, recovered the puck behind the net and fed Dingman in the crease. Johansson could not tie up Dingman, lost his stick and watched him score.

A minute later the lead doubled with the Lightning on a five-on-three power play. This play was simple geometry, a triangular passing play off the draw ending with Dave Andreychuk scoring from the post, a goal he has netted countless times in his 21-year NHL career, leaving him behind Phil Esposito for the most power play goals in league history (248).

"We didn't get the job done" on penalty killing, captain Steve Konowalchuk said. "That was a big difference in the game."

Tampa Bay goalie Nikolai Khabibulin denied Jaromir Jagr on a breakaway late in the first period, and it seemed as if it would be that kind of night for the Capitals. Jagr's line stormed the net when the puck was dropped to start the second period, but could not fool Khabibulin. When they returned to the bench, more problems arose.

Forward Kip Miller handed over the puck at Washington's blueline -- creating a two-on-one for Tampa Bay -- and two passes later it was in the net, with goalie Olaf Kolzig helpless to stop Fredrik Modin in the crease.

Jagr brought the Capitals back to life by scoring his sixth goal of the season midway through the game, flipping the puck past Khabibulin's glove from a tight angle, but the team failed to build on that on its next power play and sputtered on the man advantage in the third period as well.

Miller scored with 36 seconds left, but it was too late for a comeback. Dainius Zubrus muffed a short-handed breakaway early in the third period, another power play was wasted and the Capitals went out meekly.

"The penalties and turnovers and all of this [mess] has to stop," Cassidy said. "We'll be mediocre if we don't come ready to play and if we're going to take selfish and lazy penalties."

Capitals Notes: Washington Coach Bruce Cassidy had seven defensemen in uniform, with veteran Sylvain Cote making his season debut. Andreas Salomonsson, Mike Farrell and Jean-Francois Fortin were scratched. . . . Tampa Bay defenseman Dan Boyle has a 10-game scoring streak, dating from last season.

Chris Dingman, left, celebrates with Vincent Lecavalier as Lightning remains unbeaten.