On the second night of a four game road trip and playing on back-to-back nights, the Washington Capitals again fell victim to an all too familiar foe, the Tampa Bay Lightning, 2-1, making an already close Eastern Conference playoff race tighter.
The Caps were able to pull off a come from behind victory against the Florida Panthers on Friday night to keep pace in the playoff hunt, but weren’t able to the replicate the magic again Saturday night against the Lightning. Tampa Bay got off to a fast start when Tom Pyatt coverted a turnover by Dmitry Orlov at the blue line and knocked a puck Tomas Vokoun thought he had stopped into the net just over two minutes into the game, to his team a 1-0 edge over Washington. Despite the early tally though, Washington regrouped and held their rival in check for the rest of the period.
With momentum from what was a solid first period of hockey for the Caps, despite the early goal, the team was looking to strike early and knot the game up with the early pressure. The period went south for the Caps pretty quickly though when an errant pass from Matt Hendricks was picked off by Steven Stamkos. The All-Star center was off to the races on a clean breakaway, deked out Vokoun and netted his 40th goal of the year to give the Lightning a 2-0 lead. It was a beautiful play by Stamkos, but a bad turnover by Hendricks and gave the Tampa Bay the final tally they’d need all night.
The goal was arguably the back-breaker for a Caps team who has struggled to score more than a handful of goals on the road this year. Despite the up-hill struggle though, Washington was able to climb back in the race with a goal from Brooks Laich, off of a nice pass from Mathieu Perreault, halfway through the period. It would be the final tally for the Caps though, as they were held off the score sheet in the third.
The loss allows the Lightning to creep back into the playoff picture and move within just five standings points of the Capitals. If you were to ask Head Coach Dale Hunter, I imagine he’d say this is not the place he’d hope the team would be at this point in the season.
Despite the effort not being there for most of the night, Washington struggled to roll even two lines against the Lightning, let alone four, and could never really get any sustained offensive zone pressure, or entry for that matter. It is what has killed this team for most of the year and will most likely continue to hurt them until Nicklas Backstrom returns from injury and the team can find someone to fill their second center position.
Even when the young Swedish center comes back, Washington has to decide if it can find an adequate second line center at the trade deadline to fix the offense. Based on what the Nashville Predators had to give up to acquire Hal Gill, it is very much a sellers market this year. With the market starting to form, Washington better be willing to give up some serious assets if they want to acquire a player who can make a big impact on an offense with almost no punch.
With players going for such a high price, Washington needs to take a long hard look inside itself to determine if this team really has what it takes to compete in the Eastern Conference this year. After all, Mike Green was supposed to significantly help the team’s offense when he came back. Even though it was only his first game back, the offense didn’t look any better than what Caps fans are used to seeing, and it showed as Laich was the only positive plus-minus player on the evening.
A win against Tampa Bay would have shown some improvement for a struggling Caps team and made the decision to make a deal easier on General Manager George McPhee. The loss though, almost negates any progress the Caps made on catching Florida and gives the Panthers an opportunity to regain a four-point lead in the division tomorrow.