TAMPA — The Washington Capitals are as familiar with the Tampa Bay Lightning’s desire to play a strong transition game as any team can be. That knowledge didn’t stop the Capitals from playing into Tampa Bay’s hands Saturday night, committing turnovers that caused the very opportunities they hoped to prevent.
Turnovers led directly to both Lightning goals in Washington’s 2-1 loss at Tampa Bay Times Forum. With the defeat, the Capitals missed an opportunity to pass Toronto, which lost to Vancouver earlier Saturday, and move into eight place in the Eastern Conference standings. Instead, Washington (29-24-5, 63 points) remains outside the playoff picture in ninth.
A loss to Tampa Bay, which sits below the Capitals in the standings and has begun shipping away players prior to the trade deadline, was particularly tough to take just 24 hours after an emotional victory against the Florida Panthers. The defeat extended a troubling trend as well: Washington has not won consecutive games over its past 15. The last time it accomplished that small feat came during a three-game winning streak from Jan. 11 to 15.
“It’s what we’ve all been saying for a long time now. It’s frustrating. One step forward, one step back,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “You can’t win like that. You can’t be successful. You gotta have those streaks. You look at the teams that are doing pretty good — I bet they’ve all had a couple good streaks over five games. We just haven’t been doing that.”
The roots of the frustration on Saturday were the Capitals’ repeated turnovers and attempts to do too much both defensively and offensively from the opening faceoff.
Tampa Bay (26-26-6) opened the scoring 2 minutes 10 seconds into the contest after a pass by rookie defenseman Dmitry Orlov was picked off in the neutral zone, sending a Lightning rush into the Capitals’ zone. A shot by Tom Pyatt trickled between Tomas Vokoun’s legs and over the goal line seconds later to give the Lightning a 1-0 lead.
The Capitals fell to 6-11-2 in road games when allowing the first goal.
“They scored first, they get confidence from that and usually it’s a different game with who scores first,” Capitals Coach Dale Hunter said. “We were playing on our heels a bit so then they took it to us.”
Pyatt’s goal was off one of several odd-man chances Vokoun (21 saves) was forced to endure. Minimizing scoring opportunities off the rush has been a point of emphasis for Hunter since he arrived in late November, but every so often that aspect of the Capitals’ game eludes them. Against a team like Tampa Bay, it proved costly.
“We want to win. This was winnable game and we didn’t get it done,” Vokoun said. “I don’t think nobody can be happy about that. We just didn’t execute our game plan. . . . We play the game to the strength of the other team and we got beat.”
Tampa Bay took a 2-0 lead 1:50 into the second when Steven Stamkos cashed in on another turnover. Matt Hendricks gave up the puck at the Tampa Bay blue line, springing Stamkos on a breakaway that almost made the NHL’s leading goal-scorer’s job too easy. Stamkos deked and deftly sneaked the puck past Vokoun’s left pad for his 40th goal of the season.
Unlike the night before, when they thrived off their forechecking in rallying to defeat Florida, early in Saturday’s game the Capitals barely established themselves in the offensive zone long enough to take more than one shot on Lightning goaltender Mathieu Garon (23 saves).
Against the Panthers, “we got over the line and the first thing in our head was shoot the puck, shoot it, shoot it hard at the net, attack the net,” forward Brooks Laich said. Against Tampa Bay, “we got over the line and surveyed a little bit — looked to make a pass — then their back pressure caught us or our passes weren’t to a guy in a shooting position.”
Laich put the Capitals on the board when he redirected a pass from Mathieu Perreault past Garon as he cut into the slot. His tally, the first by a Washington forward other than Alex Ovechkin or Alexander Semin since Feb. 7, cut the deficit to 2-1, but the team never found another injection of offense.
Capitals note: Mike Green returned to the lineup 32 days after undergoing surgery to repair a small tear in his stomach lining. The defenseman finished with 14:14 of ice time, no shots on goal and one penalty. Asked how he felt, Green replied: “Good, really good. Took some time in the first period to get my feel back, but I felt really good.”