For 54 minutes, Tampa Bay defenseman Mike Lundin did yeoman's work trying to keep two-time MVP Alex Ovechkin under wraps. Every time Ovechkin sniffed a shot or was in a scoring area, Lundin was right there in his face, disrupting chance after chance.
But with a relentless motor and undeterred attitude, Ovechkin finally found a crack and made the Lightning pay by notching the winning goal with 6:26 left in a 3-2 Washington victory. The win was the 10th in a row for Washington, which is beginning to run away with the top spot in the Eastern Conference standings, and ninth consecutive at home.
The loss for the Lightning put a dent in their attempt to crack into the top eight in the East as Tampa Bay fell back to 11th in the conference, a point out of the playoff picture.
Despite a spirited third-period rally, in which goals by Marty St. Louis and Steven Stamkos erased a 2-0 deficit, the Lightning couldn't complete the comeback when Ovechkin squirted free after Lundin had to shed a broken stick, causing enough confusion in the Lightning end that gave Ovechkin an open chance from the slot. The shot eluded Mike Smith, making his first start since Jan. 12.
"That late in the game, that important moment, my stick breaks, it causes a little bit of confusion down there and then he gets open for a shot," said Lundin, who was credited with six blocked shots. "It's disappointing and it's tough. One of my big jobs on this team is to keep him from scoring and it hurts a bit."
But Smith took the blame for the goal.
"It's a shot from the slot that has to be stopped, there are no excuses, it's plain and simple," said Smith, who made 28 saves. "Those are the saves my teammates are relying on me to make and I didn't do that and we lose because of it. It's frustrating."
Since winning three consecutive games and four of five in the past week, Tampa Bay is winless in the past two, having dropped a shootout decision to Anaheim on Friday. Any kind of losing, or winless, streaks at this time of the season can be detrimental to the Lightning's playoff hopes.
So while moral victories are just another way to describe a loss at this point of the season, the Lightning will have to take whatever positives they can out of this game, with the third period being about the only highlight.
"It's devastating, but you have to grab some positives and use it as momentum, and I think we showed a lot of character," St. Louis said. "At this time of the year you can't (let a loss linger), especially the situation we are in with seven or eight teams. We have to take that third period and carry it into the next game."
For two periods Tampa Bay struggled to set up any kind of breakout from its zone, and at the times in which it did, couldn't generate any transition game through the neutral zone. At times, Washington had the Lightning pinned into their own zone for extended periods and dominated puck possession.
The Capitals took advantage in the second period, grabbing the lead on a Nicklas Backstrom rebound chance on a power play 57 seconds into the second period. Then Brooks Laich made it 2-0 on a play in which Smith stumbled initially while trying to move post to post and couldn't recover despite Victor Hedman blocking a Alexander Semin shot. Laich then pounced on the loose puck and put in the open net.
Tampa Bay rallied, however, when St. Louis deflected a Kurtis Foster shot-pass at the five-minute mark to cut the lead in half. Stamkos tied it up 2:42 later with a laser shot from the left circle for his 29th of the season, 12th on the power play.
"We mounted a good effort in the third period. I thought a lot of guys played hard," Lightning coach Rick Tocchet said. "Their best player won the game for them."