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For Capitals, it’s ‘one step forward, one step back’

Sunshine State split doesn’t help playoff bid

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TAMPA, Fla. — Center Jeff Halpern knew it right after the Washington Capitals picked up their biggest victory of the season Friday night against the first-place Florida Panthers: That was just one, and they couldn't afford a let-up.

Instead, a loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning 24 hours later put them almost right back where they started before embarking on this four-game road swing.

"It's what we've all been saying for a long time now — it's frustrating," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "It's one step forward, one step back."

The Capitals weren't totally demoralized by the defeat Saturday night, but many of the good feelings were gone. A victory would have put them back in a playoff position; now they're in chase mode for the next two games, at the Carolina Hurricanes on Monday and at the Ottawa Senators on Wednesday.

Perhaps desperation mode, too.

"We can't afford any slip-ups on this trip," right wing Troy Brouwer said. "But the last thing we want to do is put too much pressure on ourselves. We know what's at stake right now; we know how the season could turn out if this trip doesn't go well. For us, we want to go into Carolina and have a good atmosphere, a good feeling — not too intense, because that's when we'll start making mistakes, and that's when we'll start gripping our sticks a little tight."

That's perhaps what happened in Tampa, as Washington couldn't capitalize on some of what goaltender Tomas Vokoun calls "puck luck" it was getting. The Capitals also were unable to take advantage of a Lightning team that is in sell mode with the Feb. 27 trade deadline approaching.

"This was winnable game, and we didn't get it done. I don't think nobody can be happy about that," Vokoun said. "We play the game to the strength of the other team, and we got beat."

Alzner lamented a lack of offense — two goals in beating Florida 2-1 and one in the 2-1 loss at the Lightning. Forward Brooks Laich said it was because of too few shots taken.

As a defensive group, the Capitals surrendered too many odd-man rushes, and their 13th-ranked power-play unit came up empty.

As a result, Washington failed to win consecutive games for the first time since Jan. 13 and 15. The Capitals' most-recent consecutive road victories came Dec. 7 and 15.

"You can't win like that. You can't be successful," Alzner said. "You look at all the teams that are doing pretty good, I bet they've all had a couple good streaks over five games. And we just haven't been doing that. We talked about it before the game: This is the time, this is the best time to do it, and we find a way to not get it done again."

Before departing for the trip, Laich set the benchmark of at least three victories in four games for the Capitals, who ideally would like to make the playoffs by passing Florida and winning the Southeast Division for the fifth straight year.

"I said we need to win those games, but you can't look any further than the next one," Laich said. "Right now, I don't feel a lot more pressure to have to do it. The group wants to win, and that's not going to go away."

The Caps are clawing for a playoff spot for the first time since 2008, when Bruce Boudreau took over as coach for Glen Hanlon in November 2007.

They got a taste Friday night of what it was like to win an important game, away from Verizon Center, no less. But "one step forward, one step back" means things are just as dire as they were last week going into the final two on this trip.

"We've got to win those two games," Alzner said. "They're against teams that we know pretty well. Like Brooksie said, four of four or three of four we'd be pretty happy with.

"We still have a chance to get a good road trip. Being on the road we've been struggling so much, so it would be a confidence booster to get the next two wins."

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