The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Capitals’ spiral continues in Tampa as T.J. Oshie exits early

Tampa Bay players celebrate one of Pat Maroon's two third-period goals during the Lightning's 5-1 win over the Capitals on Thursday. (Jason Behnken/AP)
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TAMPA — The Washington Capitals’ six defensemen were playing in just their fourth game together Thursday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning, finally arriving on the same schedule in Game 76 of a volatile season full of injuries, call-ups and trades. Their chemistry and promise on the blue line is critical to the team’s future.

But while there is optimism about what this defensive corps might look like next season, they must first endure the final two weeks of this one, which only grew darker Thursday night in a 5-1 loss to an opponent headed in a vastly different direction. Tampa Bay, winner of two of the past three Stanley Cups, is preparing for another playoff run. Washington, barring a miracle with six games remaining, is bracing for its first postseason absence in nine years.

This loss followed a familiar script: The Capitals fell into an early two-goal hole after a series of self-inflicted errors, lost a veteran to injury, relied on stellar goaltending to stay within striking distance and watched any hopes for a late rally fizzle in the third period. But whatever progress the Capitals are able to establish heading into next season, it must start with effort, including on the new-look blue line, which was especially lacking early on Thursday.

“Keep saying the same thing, loss after loss, that defense is a priority. … I think we were puck-watching. Everybody has got a little more to give,” defenseman Nick Jensen said. “You’re getting off the ice, you shouldn’t even be able to breathe, you were working so hard. If we had that mentality, I don’t think the results are coming in the way they are.”

Washington Coach Peter Laviolette had lauded his blue line in recent days for how it played together after the return of defenseman John Carlson last week. A night after it turned in a structurally sound performance in a crushing 2-1 shootout loss to the New York Islanders, the defensive corps was looking to meet the firepower of Tampa Bay.

The results were a mixed bag. After Tampa Bay took an early 1-0 lead on a power-play goal by forward Alex Killorn, Washington’s back end settled in and held the Lightning at bay. It included a wild sequence near the end of the first period, when defensemen Rasmus Sandin and Jensen scrambled to keep a puck out of the net in front of Darcy Kuemper, who eventually made a dazzling glove save from his stomach.

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But on the ensuing faceoff, as Kuemper pointed at several Lightning players lining up outside the left circle, the Capitals were caught out of position as the puck trickled out to Lightning star Steven Stamkos. He didn’t hesitate to fire a wrister, which beat Kuemper in the top right corner of the net to make it 2-0 with just three seconds left in the first period.

“Nothing is going to look good in the first period. It wasn’t good,” Laviolette said. “We weren’t quick enough. Not competitive enough. Didn’t win enough battles.”

Laviolette had bucked convention by starting Kuemper (29 saves) for a second straight night, and he was rewarded with a performance that kept the Capitals afloat in the second period. He made a string of saves to keep the deficit at two goals.

“I saw way too many just point-blank opportunities,” Jensen said. “[Kuemper] made some huge saves. If he doesn’t make that, this game isn’t even close as it was.”

The Capitals, who lost veteran winger T.J. Oshie to an upper-body injury after the first period, inched back into the game when Craig Smith scored on a backhand to cut the lead to 2-1 at 16:10 of the second.

But by the early stages of the third, as the Capitals grinded for an equalizer, Tampa Bay came up with a turnover at its own blue line to create one of the few breakaway opportunities of the night. Anthony Cirelli slung a shot toward Kuemper, who was handcuffed as he couldn’t control the rebound.

Lightning forward Pat Maroon was waiting to clean up the rebound and make it 3-1 — and with just over three minutes remaining, Maroon did it again, beating the outstretched arms of Kuemper on a rebound to give Tampa Bay a three-goal advantage.

The loss did not mathematically eliminate the Capitals from the playoffs, but it was difficult to tell in the dressing room afterward. The only sounds came from frustrated players stuffing their pads into bags. Some players stayed behind to talk with reporters and provide another postmortem for another loss. Some grabbed pizza as they made the long walk to the bus before facing another long flight home to Washington.

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Here’s what else to know about the Capitals’ loss:

Oshie leaves, Milano out

Oshie left the game following the first period, dealing a blow to a lineup already missing winger Sonny Milano, who missed a third consecutive game with an upper-body injury. Laviolette said Oshie was “banged up” but did not have an update on his status ahead of Sunday’s home matinee against the New York Rangers.

Playoff picture

With another loss, the Capitals fell to seven points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins in the wild-card race with six games remaining; the Penguins won, 2-0, over the Nashville Predators on Thursday night. Washington also sits behind the Florida Panthers, Buffalo Sabres and Ottawa Senators in the standings.