The Washington Times - February 14, 2013, 10:02PM

TAMPA, Fla. | A funny thing happened as the Washington Capitals were cruising toward a comfortable, lopsided victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night. After building a three-goal lead, the Caps let Lightning back in it with the same kind of mental lapses and breakdowns that doomed them most of this season.

We thought we had them,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “Maybe that’s the reason why they were able to come back is because we let up a little bit.”

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The Caps let up but they didn’t totally melt down, and the advantage built up on the strength of Eric Fehr’s offense and Braden Holtby’s goaltending held up for a 4-3 victory, their third in a row and enough to get out of the NHL basement.

We knew they were going to have a little bit of a wave,” right wing Joel Ward. “But the main thing is we won the game, we can move on and get to the next game. We’re excited about that.”

Oates said it’s a learning experience for the Caps, who made mistakes that almost paved the way for the Lightning to score three times in the third period to tie it. Holtby allowed a soft goal to Teddy Purcell that made things interesting and then failed on a poke-check attempt against Nate Thompson on a breakaway.

Definitely don’t want to sit back, but plays on the blue lines we’ve got to be stronger and you can’t take chances, especially when you have [Marty] St. Louis, [Steven] Stamkos and [Vinny] Lecavalier out there,” said Fehr, who had two goals for the first time since March 9, 2011. “You have to know who you’re out against and make plays accordingly.”

That made the Caps sweat a little. In a season that has been marked by brutal five- or 10-minute collapses, it felt too much like one of those.

We’ve gotta clean it up a little bit,” Brouwer said. “We’ve tried to fall back on our systems and make sure that we’re doing the right things, but giving up a 4-1 lead and making it a game isn’t what we need right now.”

Especially not after what the Caps managed to do for the first two-and-a-half periods against the same Lightning team that ran them out of Tampa Bay Times Forum in the season opener. Guy Boucher’s group isn’t the same offensive juggernaut as it appeared, but Washington also isn’t the same lost-in-the-woods mess it was three weeks ago.

I think we’ve come a long way,” coach Adam Oates said Thursday afternoon. “I think since New Jersey [on Jan. 25] we’ve played a lot of good games in a row. As a team, the things that you want to do: You want to play good defense, you want to keep the chances against down. We still have a lot of areas to clean up, but as a group I think they’re moving much better since then.”

Clean-up is still necessary, and that won’t be masked by this three-game winning streak, compiled with victories over the lowly Florida Panthers and a Lightning team that hasn’t won a game since Feb. 1.

But it’s not like the Caps pulled this victory out of the fire like Tuesday night, when they needed a furious third-period comeback to force overtime. This one was built on a strong start, an aggressive forecheck and some timely scoring.

We obviously did a lot of good things to make it 4-1,” Oates said. “I thought we came out very well. We executed and then we got a power play, we scored and it gave the guys some confidence.”

Getting a lead was nice, but the confidence ballooned as Holtby stopped Stamkos here, Louis there and Cory Conacher, too, for good measure.

That’s what we’ve needed. I haven’t been coming up with those as much as I should be,” said Holtby, who made 27 saves for his third straight victory in as many starts. “It’s my job to make those saves. It’s my contribution to a win. I’m going to continue to try to make those.”

Two more saves in big spots in the third period and Holtby and the Caps would’ve had a victory to feel really good about. Instead, Oates said, the third period is part of the “learning curve.”

We’re still happy, obviously,” said center Mathieu Perreault, who had the first three-assist game of his NHL career. “We knew they were going to make a push. They’ve got the skill to do it and they got a couple goals at the end we could’ve easily avoid. But we battled hard and I think we deserve that game.”

No matter the almost-collapse, or the fact that the Lightning had backup goalie Mathieu Garon in net, or that the Caps sifted into dangerous territory by allowing so many quality scoring chances, they finished the Florida road trip with a perfect four points.

And they have a winning streak to build off going into Sunday’s matchup at the New York Rangers.

Whether it’s rock-scissor-paper or whether it’s hockey, whatever, you’re excited about winning three games in a row,” Ward said. “You definitely don’t want to be losing. I think that the skid that we had, we tried to have a refresh, reset button after Pittsburgh. To come out and just work hard in the next couple days and we were fortunate to get a couple of good games in.”