TAMPA, Fla. — It’s not often that Steven Stamkos skates past the red line just to chip the puck into the opponent’s zone and head off for a line change. The Tampa Bay Lightning All-Star sniper had to do just that in the final minute Tuesday night at Tampa Bay Times Forum.
That was the result of one ugly but productive shift by Mike Knuble, Joel Ward and Jeff Halpern, who cycled the puck and held it along the boards just long enough to wear out the Lightning and earn the Washington Capitals a valuable point in a Southeast Division game.
It wasn’t enough to get two, as the Caps lost 4-3 in overtime thanks to the last of several defensive miscues. But hard work at the end of regulation and throughout was exactly what the Caps wanted in a game without the suspended Alex Ovechkin and concussed Nicklas Backstrom.
“Actually I thought we played a very good game,” forward Brooks Laich said. “We didn’t get the result. Tough break to go down 3-1 and to come back and get it to overtime, and just before they scored we had a chance to win it. I thought we played a good game.”
Falling behind 3-1 was the result of some porous defense by John Carlson (minus-4) and Roman Hamrlik (minus-3). The Caps got a favorable bounce off Tampa Bay forward Nate Thompson’s stick and in for their second of the night and then Laich created a turnover by hounding Matt Gilroy, contributing to Troy Brouwer’s equalizer.
“I think we’re happy with coming back from down two,” Brouwer said. “We got a couple lucky bounces, but that’s part of the game and that’s the positive we’re going to take out of it.”
The shift by Ward, Knuble and Halpern won’t be part of any highlight reels, but coaches at several levels of hockey could show it as the perfect way to preserve a tie or a lead.
The grinders got the puck into the attacking zone and never let it get into the middle of the ice. They melted the clock away by holding it against the boards and made low-risk passes and chips to prevent any chances going the other way.
“They kept it in; they had it hemmed in there, worked them. They were dead tired,” coach Dale Hunter said. “You’re trying to score but you also still realize the defensive responsibilities.”
There were stretches where the Lightning controlled the play, but the Caps can build off some things from this game, like puck possession.
“I thought we controlled the puck maybe as well as we’ve done over the last 20, 30 games,” Laich said. “more often than not we were making them chase. It comes with good decisions; it comes with patience. Offensively we had some chances; there was pucks around the net. There were shots and second chances and third chances; [we] just weren’t able to get the win.”
No win on this night was thanks to a breakdown that allowed Stamkos to get to the net and bang home a rebound. Tomas Vokoun just a minute-and-a-half earlier made perhaps the save of the season on Vinny Lecavalier, and the Caps had opportunities to score before Stamkos ended it.
“We came back, but we’re never happy to lose. You go into overtime, we had two great chances at one end, they go down and have two chances [and] they got the second one in,” Hunter said. “It’s one of those games the next shot gets the extra point.”
Brouwer and others in the locker room were satisfied with the point because of how the Caps managed to not fold when down by two.
“We’re happy with the point. We’re happy that we battled back from being down 3-1,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “We showed some pretty good character.”
“Character” got the Caps into sole possession of first place, points-wise, for the first time under Hunter. But given that the Lightning are chasing, they don’t want to look back at this two-point swing with regret.
And that makes Wednesday night’s game at the Florida Panthers all that much more important. Florida trails the Caps by just one point now with a game in hand.
“Tomorrow is even a bigger game for us,” center Mathieu Perreault said. “We’re playing the team we’re battling to get on top of the Southeast, so it’ll be a huge two points for us.”