With a golden opportunity to all but guarantee a playoff berth with a win over the last non-playoff team in their regular season schedule, the Washington Capitals allowed two goals by NHL leading scorer Steven Stamkos in the final 63 seconds of Monday night’s game to fall to the Tampa Bay Lightning by the score of 4-2.
Alexander Semin opened the scoring at 12:47 of the second period to give Washington a one-goal lead, but a pair of Tampa Bay strikes 25 seconds apart at the tail end of that frame knocked the Caps back on their heels and into panic mode.
A late goal by Jason Chimera to knot things up again with under four minutes remaining in regulation gave Washington brief hope, but Stamkos’s outburst put a stop to that and sent the Caps home disappointed.
Both Semin and Chimera hit the 20-goal plateau with their goals, becoming the second and third Capitals player to reach that mark this season.
With the news earlier today that Tomas Vokoun will miss at least a month after re aggravating his groin injury, the burden fell on Michal Neuvirth to backstop Washington’s playoff push. The Czech netminder had a fair performance, stopping 23 of 26 shots he faced, but Neuvirth would certainly like to take back Tampa’s first goal.
The Lightning took advantage of some slick passing on their entry into the zone early in a power play with under three minutes to play in the second. Martin St. Louis curled to his right and fed the puck to Stamkos, who surprised the Caps’ penalty kill unit by forgoing the pass in order to dish to Teddy Purcell, whose quick shot slipped cleanly between Neuvirth’s leg pads.
Just 25 seconds later, the scoreboard operators at the Tampa Bay Times Forum had yet to even take Washington’s penalty off the clock when Tampa Bay claimed the lead on a slap shot from the point by Victor Hedman that blasted through a screen and caught the top right of the net.
Adding insult to injury, just moments before the Purcell goal Mike Green had a stellar opportunity to earn his first goal since returning from injury, sneaking down the right flank to unleash his patented wrist shot only to be foiled by the razor-sharp glove hand of Dwayne Roloson, who finished the game with 31 saves.
Roloson has a history of dominating the Caps, most famously in last year’s second round playoff match-up, and Washington seemed willing to accept defeat at the hands of a hot goalie until Chimera took things into his own hands and crashed the net, tapping in an easy rebound off a shot by Semin simply by being in the right place at the right time.
Washington was poised to at least earn one standings point by sending the game into overtime, and was working toward that end by packing things in defensively in front of Neuvirth’s net in the waning moments of regulation. An apparent breakdown in coverage by Brooks Laich, who was late to get out and challenge the puck on the left point, let defenseman Brian Lee alone to hammer a slapshot on net.
Neuvirth made the initial save on Lee, and stopped the follow up try by Brett Clark as well, but the third time was the charm as Stamkos slipped away from Dennis Wideman’s coverage to knock the puck into a gaping net with 1:03 remaining.
Stamkos added his second goal, his 58th of the season, in the empty net with just two seconds remaining in the game. Alexander Ovechkin had Washington’s last, best chance a few seconds earlier, tipping a long shot by Wideman on net, but Roloson turned the puck away to send Stamkos up the ice to net the insurance marker.
With only two games remaining in the regular season, on Thursday against the Florida Panthers and on Saturday at the New York Rangers, Washington can guarantee a playoff berth with two wins. Otherwise, any combination of four points gained by the Capitals or lost by the Buffalo Sabres in their remaining three games will see the Caps in the playoffs. Washington’s final two games are against the Southeast Division leading Panthers followed by the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference-topping Rangers, meaning no points are a sure thing for this troublesome squad.
Abram Fox is the Washington Capitals Page Editor for District Sports Page. He has been covering the Capitals from the press box since the 2007-08 season.