TAMPA, Fla. — It didn’t take long Saturday night for things to look all too familiar for the Washington Capitals. Again they were playing at the Tampa Bay Lightning, and again they were losing and forced to play catch-up.
Like last year’s playoff series, which made Tampa Bay Times Forum into a house of horrors, the Caps even committed a special teams too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty. It was just one of those nights, and a 2-1 loss to the Lightning at least temporarily erased the high the Caps drew from a big win at Florida.
“This was winnable game, and we didn’t get it done. I don’t think nobody can be happy about that,” goaltender Tomas Vokoun said. “We play the game to the strength of the other team and we got beat.”
The Caps knew how important this game was, especially since the Lightning are out of the playoff race and in full seller mode. Gone is Dominic Moore, shipped to San Jose, and Pavel Kubina, shipped Saturday night to Philadelphia.
“The thing is, you take two guys out of the lineup, two guys go in, they’re getting opportunity,” Tampa Bay general manager Steve Yzerman said. “Everybody’s ice time is increased; they’re excited. So they’re out there trying to make the most of an opportunity.”
Tampa Bay still features plenty of Caps killers, which made Saturday night’s game feel an awful lot like last spring, with the likes of Teddy Purcell and Steven Stamkos wreaking havoc.
Purcell opened the scoring by beating Vokoun with a soft goal, then Stamkos took advantage of a brutal giveaway by Matt Hendricks to make it a two-goal lead. It was a far-too-common storyline of giving the puck away and falling behind.
“They jumped and they scored first. They get confidence from that,” coach Dale Hunter said. “And we were playing on our heels a bit. So then they took it to us. We gave up some odd-man rushes and that’s how they scored. And definitely caused by turnovers.”
It was another example of the same old problems creeping up for the Caps, not from last year’s encounters with the Lightning but from a season’s worth of road struggles. They again failed to win consecutive games on the road, something they’ve done just once since Hunter took over. Overall, their road record is 10-16-3.
And though Tampa Bay carried the play early and often, what Vokoun, who made 21 saves, calls “puck luck” was going the Caps’ way, with shots going off the post or barely staying out of the net.
“We had some good opportunities. I had one good look at the end and missed the net and a couple jam plays around the net where the puck seemed to bounce the wrong way,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “I thought we had good pressure tonight. I thought we skated well for a back-to-back, but we’ve got to find ways to win, especially against divisional teams.”
It was a close loss instead of a blowout, but this is not the time for silver linings. A victory would have put the Caps back in a playoff position. Instead, as defenseman Karl Alzner pointed out, it was one step forward and one step back, giving the division-leading Panthers another chance to build separation.
Brooks Laich said before departing on this four-game road trip that the Caps had to win at least three. This loss ratchets up the pressure for the next two games: versus the Carolina Hurricanes on Monday and the Ottawa Senators on Wednesday.
Given the hole the Capitals have dug themselves, each loss hurts.
“I said we need to win those games, but you can’t look any further than the next one,” Laich said. “It’s a loss, but you have to move on. I don’t know what to say. 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.”