- The Washington Times - Friday, March 12, 2010

Only a night after the Caps clinched the Southeast Division, Semyon Varlamov was victimized by a couple of long Tampa Bay drives, and Washington dropped the final game of its five-game homestand with a 3-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in a performance coach Bruce Boudreau said was “outworked.”

After the Lightning withstood a Capitals flurry to open the second period, the Bolts scored two goals of their own in the frame thanks to traffic in front of netminder Varlamov to hand Washington just its fourth home regulation loss at home this season, and also just the second regulation loss in the team’s past 22 games (17-2-3).

The setback also prevented the Caps from passing the 100-point mark on the season, and also ended a six-game streak where Washington had picked up at least one point in the standings (5-0-1).

Varlamov, who is looking to reclaim the starting role after a couple of shaky outings, allowed a pair of goals high in the corner of the net and took just his third regulation loss of the season — but still hasn’t put on a real dominant performance since coming back from injury last month. He finished the night with 24 saves, but Boudreau was quick to defend his netminder afterwards, telling reporters he wasn’t given much of a chance to stop the Lightning scoring drives.

At the other end, Lightning netminder Antero Niittymaki held his ground in the second period facing back-to-back Capitals power-plays, and thanks to his work, Tampa Bay was able to pull to four points back of eighth-place Boston in the race for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. He finished the night with 28 saves as Tampa Bay was desperate to gain ground after a tough stretch following the Olympic break.

“After the break, it gets a little bit more difficult to score a lot of goals,” Mike Knuble said afterwards. “You’re not going to blow teams out. They’re playing for their lives … You have to give [Tampa Bay] credit. They had a gusty effort.

“I think we thought it was going to be easier than it was tonight, and we’ve got to give teams, our opponents, a lot more respect than that.”

Alexander Semin had the first good scoring chance of the game just over three minutes in, as he made a nifty deke around a defender, and narrowly missed the net, but then left the ice after getting a high stick to the lip and needed the trainer to help stem the bleeding.

Tampa Bay got the first power play of the night, as Matt Bradley turned the puck over and was called for a slashing penalty 8:38 into the contest while looking to break up the ensuing scoring chance by the Lightning. However, Washington killed off the penalty, and after a couple of decent scoring chances in the period by Eric Fehr, Washington got its chance with 3:55 left in the period.

Washington used the extra-man advantage to take the lead, as Tomas Fleischmann blasted in a one-time pass from Alexander Ovechkin with 3:05 left in the period to put the Caps up 1-0.

However, Mike Green got caught pinching in during a Caps scoring chance, creating a 2-on-1 for the Lightning, and Brandon Bochenski took advantage, rifling a puck in the corner of the net past Varlamov to square the game with just :49 left in the period.

Washington had a nice flurry to open the second period, getting a couple of good chances, but Niittymaki made a nice glove save on a Brendan Morrison backhand to keep the game knotted at one.

The Caps got a chance on the power play as Teddy Purcell was called for hooking Fleischmann, putting Washington back up a man with 2:09 elapsed in the frame.

Washington couldn’t score on the advantage, but Fehr was injured just after Purcell returned to the ice, getting helped to the locker room by the trainers, but he eventually returned to the bench and back to the ice a couple of minutes later after the scare.

The Capitals got another chance with the extra man when Kurtis Foster was called for tripping with 6:16 gone in the period, but despite some good chances, Niitymaki kept the puck out of the net.

Tampa Bay then took their first lead as Matt Walker beat Varlamov with a shot from the point with 8:30 left in the second to put the Bolts up 2-1.

“Once [Tampa Bay] started to believe they could win, they won every battle and they outworked us,” Boudreau said. “It’s pretty simple — if you go through the motions, if you don’t work hard, you can’t win.”

Just 40 seconds after the Walker goal, Vincent Lecavalier beat Varlamov with a shot, but the shot rang off the pipe to keep the Caps just one goal down. But Lecavlier got another chance later in the period while standing alone in front of the Caps netminder and took advantage of it.

With 4:48 left in the frame, Lecavalier spun around and deflected a Walker shot past Varlamov, but the referee initially ruled that the puck was hit with a high stick and washed out the goal. However, review determined he hit it with his glove and making it a legal goal to put the Lightning up 3-1 and leaving the home crowd unhappy as the two teasms headed to the dressing room.

“If you’re not working hard, you’re not going to get one bounce off you in front of the net like Lecavalier,” Boudreau told reporters. “They worked hard, so it bounced in. He put himself in position and he worked hard to get in front of the net.”

After Scott Walker missed a chance in close, the Lightning had a golden chance to put the game away six minutes into the third as Martin St. Louis deflected a Steve Downie centering feed, but hit the crossbar to keep the Caps within striking distance.

Washington got a chance to climb back in the contest with 9:20 left in regulation as Walker was called for slashing on a strange play where Jason Chimera broke in and had a chance on Niittymaki, but the Caps, who had just two shots on goal in the first 10 minutes of the period, were handed an opportunity to cash in.

Brooks Laich was able to do just that, potting a rebound of a Green shot he deflected past Niittymaki for his 21st goal of the year and cutting the deficit to 3-2 with 8:51 to play.

“Sometimes, you’ve got to give credit to a team that plays well defensively, especially against a good offensive team,” Laich said of the Lightning’s defensive effort. “They didn’t give us [many] chances. When we were in their zone, they closed on us and took time and space away.”

The Caps pressed for the equalizer down the stretch, but despite some good chances by Semin and Ovechkin to tie the game in the final minutes, the Caps couldn’t get the equalizer.

“It’s the end of a pretty good stand here, but we’ve got to play better,” Knuble told reporters. “It’s not always about the score, it’s how you’re playing, so we have to get our act together before Sunday [against Chicago] — that’s for sure.”

Tampa Bay joins the Rangers, Montreal and Carolina as the only teams to beat Washington on regulation this season, with the last such loss coming back on Dec. 28 against the Hurricanes.

The Capitals head to Chicago for a Sunday afternoon game with the Blackhawks pitting the team with the most points in the Eastern Conference and the team battling for first place in the Western Conference. Washington will make stops in Florida, Carolina and Tampa Bay before returning to home ice on March 24th when the Penguins make their final regular-season visit to D.C.

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