TAMPA — No one expected that the Washington Capitals’ season opener would be perfect. Not after just six days to learn a new system from a new coach, when there’s chemistry to establish, communication to pin down and when many players on the roster hadn’t played a professional game in eight months.
There were plenty of little miscues, especially defensively as players struggled to identify assignments or regroup when caught out of position. Washington also lacked discipline and took eight trips to the penalty box — including a pair that resulted in a two-man advantage at the start of the third — giving the Lightning’s forwards the opportunity to rack up three power-play goals.
Both problems, Oates said, could be attributed at least in part to a lack of conditioning.
“Second period, obviously it’s a long change [to the bench],” Oates said. “They had a couple waves on us and wore us out. I think just the amount of ice time the guys got and being a little bit out of shape took its toll.”
The Capitals kicked off this lockout-shortened 48-game season with four of the first five minutes on the power play, but despite plenty of movement and five shots on goal, they couldn’t find a way to finish.
A special-teams heavy start limited minutes for the bulk of the roster, preventing players from establishing a rhythm in what was for many their first game since the conclusion of the 2011-12 season. Failing to capitalize on those early opportunities helped balance the contest in Tampa Bay’s favor.
After thwarting the penalties, the Lightning took a 1-0 lead 6 minutes 24 seconds in a long-range shot by defenseman Eric Brewer that beat a screened Braden Holtby (28 saves). Brewer’s tally, his first of two on the night, came on Tampa Bay’s first shot of the game. Regardless of multiple comeback attempts, the Capitals never managed to wrestle the lead away from the Lightning after conceding that first goal.
Alex Ovechkin, who saw 23:35 of ice time and recorded four shots on goal — all in the first period — said the failure to take advantage of the early power plays proved particularly costly.
“[It] was big moment I think for us in the first period. We had three right away, we have to use it,” Ovechkin said. “That kind of momentum was on our side but they score the goal, it was our fault.”
Back on the power play for a third time in the first seven minutes, the Capitals finally converted when Joel Ward knocked a bouncing rebound past Anders Lindback to make it 1-1. Forty-four seconds later,Vincent Lecavalier fired into an open net to claim a 2-1 lead while the Capitals scrambled about their own zone after an initial chance by Teddy Purcell clanked off the post. Lecavalier’s goal marked Tampa Bay’s second shot of the game.
Washington pulled even again 1:59 into the second when Ward recorded yet another goal by crashing the net. The tally marked Ward’s first multi-goal game as a Capital and his first since May 7, 2011 while in the playoffs with Nashville.
Martin St. Louis notched the first of his two power-play goals just past the five-minute mark in the middle period to snatch the lead back once more. From there the Capitals’ penchant for penalties only grew. While Wojtek Wolski made it 3-3 late in the second, Washington took three more minors, putting more pressure on the lineup in the first game back after a lengthy layoff.
It may not have cost them late in the second, but when tripping penalties by Mathieu Perreault and Nicklas Backstrom gave Tampa Bay a five-on-three for more than a minute, the damage was all but certain. St. Louis scored again on the two-man advantage to make it 4-3 and knock the Capitals on their heels.
Center Mike Ribeiro said it wasn’t surprising to see so many penalties, but he knows the trend can’t continue.
“It’s been a long time for everyone, you come back and you’re flat-footed and out of position. You’re chasing back,” Ribeiro said. “There’s some calls that were made. There were other calls that wasn’t made, but at the end of the day it’s part of the game. Discipline will win you games. We cannot give teams five, six goals and expect to win any game.”
On a failed pinch attempt by Tom Poti, who made his return to the NHL Saturday night after missing almost the past two seasons with various injuries, Purcell found rookie Cory Conacher streaking up ice. Conacher made it 5-3 to give the Lightning the cushion it needed. Brewer added the final tally, another power play goal, with less than four minutes to go.
“Seemed that every time we tied it, back we were pushing to get another one,” Ward said. “They just seemed to keep climbing and climbing. They ended up getting an insurance goal and that killed us toward the end.”
Capitals note: Washington defenseman Jack Hillen left the game favoring his left shoulder after being propelled into the boards by a check from Lecavalier with 11:40 left in the second period. It was called an upper-body injury and he did not return to the game.