- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 29, 2004

TAMPA, Fla. — Having his last-place Washington Capitals rally past the first-place Tampa Bay Lightning on the road one night after a similar comeback against the second-place Florida Panthers was too much to ask.

But coach Glen Hanlon wasn’t upset that the Caps, after falling behind by two goals in the first period, forged a tie only to give up two late goals and lose 4-2 last night. Far from it.

“This weekend was the best back-to-back games since I’ve been here,” said Hanlon, who took over when Bruce Cassidy was fired Dec.10. “Everybody played hard. Everybody finished checks. I’m extremely pleased. Yeah, we would have liked to get a point out of that game, but there are bigger things that were accomplished here. We’ve started a journey here. The first curve has a road to respectability. After that is the road to success.”

The Lightning, who overcame a 2-0 series deficit to whip the Caps in the first round of the 2003 playoffs, are certainly on the latter road. They improved to 19-2-1-4 in their last 26 games thanks to Cory Stillman’s goal off a 2-on-1 rush with Brad Richards.

With only Todd Rohloff back for the Caps, Richards rang a shot off the right post and Stillman was in place to put the carom into the open right side of the net at 16:31 of the third period. Martin St. Louis took the NHL scoring lead with an empty-net score with 10.3 seconds left.

Dainius Zubrus closed Washington within 2-1 at 11:16 of the second period, playing the puck off the half-boards, spinning in the left circle and hurling a backhand that squeezed between Tampa Bay goalie Nikolai Khabibulin’s pads.

“You do those things once in awhile, but they don’t work very often,” Zubrus said. “I hadn’t scored in awhile, so it felt pretty good.”

Zubrus’ 12th goal was his first in 17 games since Dec.19, not including the 16 games he missed with foot and chest injuries. He returned for the third time in Friday’s 4-1 victory at Florida.

Then at 11:16 of the third period, Alexander Semin threw the puck toward the net from a bad angle on the left side and celebrated as it trickled past defenseman Pavel Kubina and the seemingly befuddled Khabibulin. It was the 19-year-old rookie’s second goal in as many nights after a 15-game drought. Michael Nylander had the lead assist, his second in two nights after missing the first 63 games recovering from a broken right leg.

“Alex will always be able to score if his defensive habits are strong enough to allow him to be on the ice enough,” Hanlon said.

After Tampa Bay’s Vincent Lecavalier hit the left post at 6:28 of the first period, Stephen Peat’s slashing penalty 47 seconds later gave the Lightning their first power play. Washington killed the short-handed situation, but Tampa Bay kept the puck in the offensive zone, and Fredrik Modin skated in untouched from the right corner and lifted a shot into the top right corner of the net for a 1-0 lead at 9:14.

Caps backup goalie Sebastien Charpentier, playing his second game since Oct.23 because of a hip ailment that required surgery, slid to the left post at the perfect time to thwart Darryl Sydor’s point-blank one-timer at 12:27. However, the backup goalie again had no answer for Modin at 15:02. Dan Boyle broke into the Washington zone and passed across to Modin, who fended off Brian Willsie’s checking and stuffed his own rebound past Charpentier.

Minus the departed Robert Lang, Jaromir Jagr and Peter Bondra as well as the apparently ailing Sergei Gonchar — scratched for a second straight night with what the Caps are terming the flu — Washington’s once-fearsome power play generated only two shots on three opportunities. Washington’s power play efficiency has dropped from 20 to 15 percent since the offensive exodus began with the Jagr trade Jan.23.

Hanlon said he expects Gonchar, who skated in pregame warmups, to play Tuesday against Florida at home — assuming the NHL’s top-scoring defenseman hasn’t been dealt by then.

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