Braden Holtby hung his head and then smacked his stick against his pads in frustration. Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov, an MVP favorite, got a breakaway and made Holtby pay, sliding the puck through the Washington goaltender’s legs.
For all of the good that the Capitals did offensively in Tuesday night’s game against the Lightning in Capital One Arena, defensive miscues — like allowing Kucherov’s breakaway — determined the result. In a matchup of Eastern Conference division leaders, Tampa Bay beat the Capitals, 4-2, even as Washington outshot the league’s best team 37-19.
For the first time in his career, Holtby lost a fourth straight appearance, allowing three goals on eight shots in the first period before Kucherov’s goal in the third.
“That’s on no one else but me,” Holtby said. “Especially the third and fourth goal — that’s the difference in the game. I thought we played a really strong game against a really good team, and we should’ve got a better result. That’s on me why we didn’t.”
Lars Eller chipped away at the Lightning’s lead with his power-play one-timer 9:32 into the second period. Captain Alex Ovechkin then seemed especially determined to wipe away the Tampa Bay lead, swarming goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy with three shots on goal, three attempts blocked and two misses through 40 minutes. Attempting to make up for the deficit, Washington had 14 shots on goal in the second period.
It’s rare that Ovechkin is denied a goal when launching so many pucks at the net. His ninth shot of the game finally beat Vasilevskiy, cutting the lead to one with 8:58 remaining. Capital One Arena seemed rejuvenated, but Kucherov quickly quieted the crowd. He scored less than two minutes later and, when Brooks Orpik took a penalty with 2:19 left in the game, fans left for the exits.
“The goaltenders in this league are erasers,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said. “Tonight, their eraser was really good, and we take the loss.”
The Capitals have had plenty of recent success at home against the Lightning; Tampa Bay had not won in regulation in its past 15 regular season visits to Washington, dating from 2010. But by the time the first period was over, some Capitals fans booed their team as it returned to the dressing room, trailing 3-0.
Holtby has been one of the league’s most consistent goaltenders since Trotz became coach in 2014, but he entered this start in a slide of sorts. He had lost his past three starts, allowing at least four goals each time. His previous start came Saturday night in Chicago, when he was dinged for six goals through two periods before Philipp Grubauer replaced him for the third. Holtby won the Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goaltender in the 2015-16 season and was a finalist last season, but he came into this game with a .911 save percentage and a 2.92 goals against average, both career-worst marks.
Most of the struggles can be explained by his team’s play in front of him. Washington’s blue line experienced turnover this offseason with three players — Nate Schmidt, Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk — departing for other teams, forcing the Capitals to lean on two rookies in the top six. Washington allowed fewer than 28 shots per game a year ago, and that has jumped to nearly 33, including more high-danger scoring chances.
On Tuesday night, the Capitals were shorthanded just 34 seconds into the game when Brett Connolly was called for interference on Tampa Bay’s Dan Girardi. The penalty kill failed to clear the puck despite several chances to do so, and Holtby paid for that when Brayden Point scored from the back door on the first shot of the game. Sixteen minutes into the period, the Lightning extended the lead with Chris Kunitz’s tip of an Andrej Sustr shot. Less than two minutes later, Point scored his second goal, blowing past defenseman John Carlson as he drove to the net and beat Holtby with a backhand.
“We didn’t really have a bad period,” Trotz said. “We made three mistakes, and they got all three of them. One was a little bit of a failed clear. One was a turnover, and we got beat back to the net on a deflection, and the third one was a line change. . . . No one takes the loss; we all take the loss. I take the loss, the group takes the loss, and Braden is part of the group.”
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