Lethargic First Period Dooms The Lightning In Loss To Washington

Nicklas Backstrom celebrates with Alex Ovechkin after the former’s first period goal during a 6-3 win over Lightning on Saturday night. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

TAMPA – There was plenty of pregame pomp and circumstance prior to Saturday night’s home finale at Amalie Arena.

The NHL’s deputy commissioner, Bill Daly, awarded the Presidents’ Trophy and Steven Stamkos, with Vinny Lecavalier and team owner Jeff Vinik on hand, was recognized for becoming the team’s all-time goal-scoring leader.

Then the Capitals and Alex Ovechkin stole the spotlight.

Washington led 3-0 after one period and Ovechkin later scored his 50th and 51st goals in leading the visitors to a 6-3 win.

The three-goal margin equaled the Lightning’s worst home loss of the season.

“It was clear it took us a little bit to get going,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper, in addressing his team’s four-day layoff after coming from behind to beat Boston on Monday night.

There were other issues besides a slow start such as the number of penalties the Lightning took – the Caps were 2-for-5 on the man advantage — and the number of outstanding chances they allowed Washington. The latter has been a particular concern the past few games. Not just Saturday night.

“The last few games we have been giving up too much,” said Cooper, whose team lost the services of defenseman Victor Hedman over the final two periods due to what the team referred to as an upper-body injury. “That has to get better. The penalties we are taking and just putting the other team on the powerplay, we have to be more disciplined that way.”

The teams that tangled in last season’s Eastern Conference Final got to know each other pretty well down the stretch by playing three times in 15 days.

Tampa Bay won the first two encounters, but a season sweep was not in the cards.

The Lightning, which entered the night on an 8-1-0 run, trailed 3-0 after one period. It was an opening 20 minutes in which they were outshot 13-5, lacked cohesion and had very little if any push back following their four-day layoff.

“We tried emphasizing not having that slow start,” said Ryan McDonagh. “Maybe our legs weren’t there, but we needed to be better positionally and better with the puck.”

There was more jump in their stride during the middle period, but the Capitals took a 4-0 lead on Nicklas Backstrom’s second of the game a 7:53.

The Lightning got on the board at 17:25 when Mikhail Sergachev threw the puck toward the net and J.T. Miller deflected it past Washington goalie Braden Holtby. It was only the Lightning’s 13th shot on goal.

After killing off a Sergachev minor for high sticking early in the third period, the Lightning closed the gap to two. Tyler Johnson picked up a loose puck in the neutral zone, broke in alone on Holtby, a put home a wrister for his 28th goal of the season at 3:36.

Suddenly, there was plenty of life in the team and in the arena. In fact, the Capitals at one point went 10 minutes without a shot on goal.

There were also a couple of skirmishes, including a battle between Erik Cernak and Tom Wilson that served as a main event during a spirited third period as the Lightning attempted to climb all the way out of the four-goal hole.

Then Ovechkin struck.

His 50th of the season, drilled past Andrei Vasilevskiy and off a nice feed from Oshie, with 5:25 remaining made it 5-2. The many Caps fans in attendance responded to the milestone – the eighth time Ovechkin has scored at least 50 goals in a season – by chanting “Ovie,” “Ovie.”

Ovechkin scored 1:40 later on the powerplay for a 6-2 Washington lead. That gave the Caps three two-goal scorers in Oshie, Backstrom and Ovechkin.

Nikita Kucherov scored inside a minute remaining for the final margin.

“Whether we are playing Washington, Boston, Toronto or whatever, to play the way we did the first half of the game you’re not going to win,” said Stamkos. “It was too sloppy and not enough emotion until (the third period.)”

As for the league record book, the loss prevented the Lightning (59-15-4) from a chance at equaling the 132 points of the 1976-77 Canadiens. By winning their last four games, all of which are on the road, they can top the 62 wins by the Red Wings in 1995-96.

Tom Layberger has been a sports writer and editor since 1990. Among the companies he has worked for are Beckett Publishing, The Topps Company and Comcast. In addition to being a contributing writer for sportstalkflorida.com, Tom also writes for forbes.com and Tampa Bay Business & Wealth Magazine. A native of the Philadelphia suburbs and a University of South Florida grad, Tom is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and the National Football Foundation. He resides in Tampa.