The Washington Times - February 15, 2013, 07:15AM

Welcome back to the Morning After, your home for Washington Capitals analysis during this shortened, 48-game season.

GAME 14: CAPS 4, LIGHTNING 3 (5-8-1, 11 points, last in Southeast, 14th in East)

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TAMPA, Fla. | This was the one that (almost) got away.

Ask the Montreal Canadiens if building a three-goal lead against the Tampa Bay Lightning is a safe endeavor. For the second straight game Tampa Bay poured it on in the final period

“I really thought we were going to score another one and we almost did,” Lightning coach Guy Boucher said.

But the Caps hung on for dear life after watching the 4-1 lead become 4-3 with 3:13 left.

“You know what, you obviously have to use it as a learning curve,” coach Adam Oates said. “We obviously did a lot of good things to make it 4-1. and we made a mistake off a faceoff to make it 4-2 and then we didn’t protect the puck as good as we should’ve in their end and we gave a guy a breakaway, which we shouldn’t.”

Center Mike Ribeiro lost the faceoff on what was goaltender Braden Holtby’s softest goal in at least three starts, as the puck slid under his left pad from a bad angle. Then it was a turnover by right wing Joel Ward that sparked Nate Thompson’s breakaway in the third. Holtby tried and failed to poke-check the puck away.

“That one behind the net’s a pretty lucky goal and maybe a mistake a little high where we should have probably got the puck deep,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “Maybe we were getting a little complacent there, not following our own rules and getting pucks behind their net and making sure we had a good forecheck.”

Once center Jay Beagle scored the Caps’ fourth goal on a scramble around the crease with 12:31 left, he and his teammates expected some push-back from the Lightning.

“They came on strong. After we got that fourth goal, it’s almost like they found another notch and turned it on to another level,” Beagle said. “We had a couple turnovers that we knew that we had to get it deep on these guys just because of how skilled they are and how they like to do those odd-man rushes.”

Players stress and Oates preaches the importance of playing a 60-minute game. The Caps put on a good 51-minute performance Thursday night, and it was enough to escape Tampa Bay Times Forum with two points.

Perhaps getting a scare can provide the Caps a cautionary tale.

“We’ve got to make sure that we’re closing teams out, especially for divisional points,” Brouwer said.

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Let’s have some fun with numbers: The Caps scored a power-play goal for the sixth straight game and are 8-for-15 in that time. They went 1-for-1 Thursday night, which is about as good as can be expected.

“We were ticking it around pretty good on the power play, guys were making good plays, seeing what was open,” said Brouwer, who scored the power-play goal. “We went through the first time and thought if that D-man is going to collapse a little bit then I might be open in the slot and it happened to work out.”

Brouwer quietly has a team-high seven goals. That’s tied for ninth in the NHL with Steven Stamkos and others and one more than Pavel Datsyuk, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa. It’s also two more than Alex Ovechkin.

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More fun with numbers: Defenseman Tomas Kundratek, also quietly, has four assists in his past five games.

“He’s playing behind Mike Green and John Carlson, who dominate a lot of ice time, and he’s fit in perfectly,” Oates said Thursday afternoon. “And he knows the system from playing it in Hershey. He’s come up, he skates good and he’s got a couple points lately, so that helps. And he was a big threat on the power play down there, which is the same kind of look. So a lot of little pieces of the puzzle fits in for him to allow him to just do his game.”

Kundratek has had a few chances for his first NHL goal. “It’ll come,” Oates said.

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Fun with numbers, part 3: Thursday night was the first three-assist game of center Mathieu Perreault’s NHL career. He said he and Eric Fehr (two goals) have always worked well together.

“Most of the time I can just recover those pucks and make plays and he’s a good shooter,” Perreault said. “It was good tonight.”

This was Perreault’s third straight game in the lineup and third straight victory. Coincidence? Probably, but the 25-year-old has been good.

Perreault assisted on Brouwer’s power-play goal, finishing a perfect tic-tac-toe sequence. His assist on Fehr’s first goal was a good bounce of the puck deflecting off his skate. And he simply trusted Fehr enough to give him the puck on a rush.

“I know Perreault wanted to get it deep, but I saw the D kind of cheating over to him, so I called for it and he made a nice pass,” Fehr said. “I just tried to put it on net.”

That third line of Fehr, Perreault and Ward continues to pay dividends.

“The other two lines kind of dominate the opponents’ checkers because they got to worry about our other guys, so you need a third line that can go out there and provide some offense and be reliable,” Oates said. “That’s what they’re doing. They’ve got a little rhythm going right now, so it’s good for them.”

Fehr’s goal was a result of some hard work by Ward.

“I saw him forcing the puck on the D, and I figured he was going to slip it out to one side and I had one side and Perreault had the other,” Fehr said. “Obviously Matty gave a nice pass to me and put it almost too high but in.”

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Fun with numbers, part 4: Actually it should be called part 27. Holtby has won three games in a row for the first time since his rookie season, each one coming with 27 saves.

Holtby was the difference in the game early, making plenty of big stops on the likes of Stamkos, Marty St. Louis and Cory Conacher. With two days between the victory at the Lightning and Sunday’s game at the New York Rangers, it’s hard to envision a scenario in which Holtby doesn’t make his fourth straight start.