TAMPA — After trudging into their locker room Saturday night, the Lightning players peeled off their pads, pulled off their skates and flung them toward their duffel bags.
If only they could have discarded their disappointment as easily.
Despite playing aggressive, entertaining hockey against the NHL's top club, the Capitals, the Lightning fell 3-1 before 19,844 at the St. Pete Times Forum to extend its losing streak to four games. Once again the team failed to boost its sagging playoff chances.
"It's devastating," right wing Marty St. Louis said. "It's like there's no air in the room right now. The walls are closing in."
The Lightning (28-31-12, 68 points) still trails idle Boston for the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot by six points and lost ground to ninth-place Atlanta (73 points), which beat Philadelphia. Nor did it help the Lightning cause that Carolina beat Pittsburgh to move up (68 points) in the standings.
"The guys played hard tonight. They left it on the ice," coach Rick Tocchet said. "What more can you ask?"
A bit more offense would help. During the skid, which has come against some of the NHL's elite (Pittsburgh, Phoenix, Buffalo and Washington), the Lightning has mustered all of five goals.
"I don't know, maybe we're asking for a lot from some guys," Tocchet said. "I'd like to see a guy score a goal or play a little over his head, but it's tough."
Especially since the Lightning looked like a playoff team in so many ways against the Capitals (48-14-10).
After Tomas Fleischmann opened the scoring at the 2:40 mark, star center Vinny Lecavalier answered moments later.
He and his teammates continued to press and created a power-play chance, but that was when superstar left wing Alex Ovechkin, the league's top scorer who was suspended for the previous two games, made his presence felt.
He snuck out of his zone on the left wing unchecked, took a long pass from center Nicklas Backstrom, carried the puck to the crease and beat goaltender Antero Niittymaki at the 10:47 mark.
Though the Lightning fired shot after shot (it had a 26-13 edge through two periods), it couldn't get the equalizer against goaltender Jose Theodore, who is 16-0-2 since Jan. 13.
"We played good enough to get a better result," St. Louis lamented. "We just couldn't get a goal. We had chances. It's on us. Me and Stammer (Steven Stamkos) and our line has to find a way to get a goal."
But what now?
"It's definitely disappointing," Lecavalier said. "We've just got to respond (today at Florida). That's all we can do."
Brian Landman can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3347.
First—1, Washington, Fleischmann 21 (Fehr, Steckel), 2:40. 2, Tampa Bay, Lecavalier 22 (Purcell, Bochenski), 6:54. 3, Washington, Ovechkin 45 (Backstrom), 10:47. Penalties—Green, Was (hooking), 3:23; Carlson, Was (holding), 8:13; Lundin, TB (holding), 17:10; Szczechura, TB (tripping), 18:59; Washington bench, served by Fehr (too many men), 19:58.
Second—None. Penalties—S.Walker, Was, major (fighting), 2:49; Konopka, TB, major (fighting), 2:49; Erskine, Was (boarding), 12:03; Poti, Was (roughing), 12:50; Lecavalier, TB (hooking), 12:50; Veilleux, TB (high-sticking), 15:39; Fehr, Was (boarding), 18:31.
Third—4, Washington, Semin 33 (Laich, Morrison), 7:20. Penalties—Downie, TB (roughing), 18:08. Shots—Washington 4-9-15—28. Tampa Bay 13-13-8—34. Power plays—Washington 0 of 4; Tampa Bay 0 of 5. Goalies—Washington, Theodore 26-7-6 (34 shots-33 saves). Tampa Bay, Niittymaki 18-16-5 (28-25). A—19,844 (19,758). T—2:25. Referees — Dennis LaRue, Wes McCauley. Linesmen—Mark Pare, Greg Devorski.