- The Washington Times - Monday, April 2, 2012

TAMPA, Fla. — Eliminated from playoff contention, the Lightning talked about playing for the fans in their final game at Tampa Bay Times Forum during a disappointing season. The pregame message on the video screens provided plenty of sources of intangible motivation, like pride and teammates.

The Washington Capitals, on the other hand, had everything to play for in the standings. And with just over three minutes left, they tied the score and looked to have at least one more crucial point well in hand. But minutes later it was gone, as Steven Stamkos put home the game-winner with with 63 seconds left that ultimately sent the Caps to a painful 4-2 loss Monday night.

Most importantly, it sent them home empty-handed at a time when points are at a premium.

“Not being able to get a single point tied with three minutes left, it’s disappointing to say the least,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “We need to make sure that we’re closing out teams or finding ways to make sure that we’re getting points.”

So good at getting points lately despite not playing consistently well, the Capitals left Tampa still in control of their playoff hopes but with their chances of winning a fifth straight Southeast Division on life support. The Florida Panthers can clinch the division title with a win in any of their three remaining games.

With 88 points, Washington can get in by winning its final two games, or if the Buffalo Sabres (86 points and three games left) stumble. But it shouldn’t have even come to that.

“It’s frustrating. We could have really put ourselves in a good spot and put a little bit of a stranglehold on it. But now we just kind of took one more step back and made it a lot tougher on ourselves,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “We obviously let off the gas, and there was a lot of bad turnovers and sloppy play. That’s the sign of a team, that, in my opinion, thinks they had it a little bit too good. It was a big-time error by us. We never should’ve had that game be where it was.”

A 1-0 lead thanks to Alexander Semin’s wicked shot past Dwayne Roloson melted away with two Tampa Bay goals in 25 seconds during the second period, and the Forum was rocking. That is, until Jason Chimera tied it with a rebound goal with 3:17 left.

With Michal Neuvirth making a seemingly never-ending series of big saves, overtime seemed inevitable. But Stamkos was left open in front for his 57th of the season and the dagger.

“We got that tying goal, which was good. [If] we bring it to overtime, we get a chance to get two points either way and kind of let it slip away at the end there,” Chimera said. “Missed assignments a bit and it ends up in your net. When you’ve got guys like Stamkos on the ice, you’ve got to be extra careful. We battled back, but it’s not good enough.”

It’s one of those losses that could be more devastating in retrospect than it felt Monday night, given that the Caps had a little bit of wiggle room left to clinch a postseason berth. That remains, but they may need to kiss the division and home-ice advantage in the first round goodbye.

How it all transpired, with a mid-game implosion and late-game collapse, made it sting. But any kind of regulation loss puts into question whether Thursday’s game against the Panthers back home will have any bearing on the Southeast race.

No matter what, it’ll make a difference in the Caps’ attempt to just get into the playoffs.

“It’s tough loss to swallow. We played hard,” Neuvirth said. “The game’s over, and now we’ve got to look forward to the next game.”

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