TAMPA — Goalie Ben Bishop thought Saturday's 2-1 loss to the Capitals was one of the Lightning's better games of the year, "maybe the best."
Captain Steven Stamkos believed his team couldn't have worked any harder and executed for most of it while outshooting Washington 36-20, 15-1 in the third. "I told the guys, 'If we play like this, we're going to win a lot more down the stretch,' " Stamkos said.
But will they? Coach Jon Cooper feels like he's always saying his team "deserved a better fate" after losses in this disappointing season. This was the seventh time the Lightning lost when allowing two goals or fewer, the sixth time in regulation.
Tampa Bay (14-13-3) squandered another opportunity to gain ground as it tries to climb back into playoff position before it is too late.
"Clearly it's a concern because it's not October anymore," Cooper said. "Christmas is right around the corner, and all of a sudden now we're looking at the dog days of January and February and we're going the wrong way in the standings."
The main problem continues to be scoring, the Lightning held to one goal or fewer for the 11th time, two goals or fewer for the 17th time in 30 games. And it won't get any easier with several key forwards out injured.
All-Star center Tyler Johnson was scratched Saturday and will likely miss the upcoming three-game road trip after re-aggravating an injury Thursday. Wing Jonathan Drouin was scratched after warmups with a lower-body injury. Ondrej Palat, who just returned Thursday after being out since Nov. 7 with a left ankle injury, got hurt on his third shift Saturday, coming back momentarily but playing just 3 minutes, 34 seconds. He's day to day.
"I'm just speechless in how this is going," Cooper said.
As a result, line combinations have been constantly shuffled, zapping any chemistry. That has hurt Stamkos, who started Saturday on a line with Palat and red-hot Nikita Kucherov before Palat went down.
Stamkos, who is losing playmakers left and right, has played more of a setup role recently, feeding Kucherov, who has five goals in his past four games, including a power-play goal Saturday. Stamkos has five assists in his eight-game goal drought, his longest since going eight Dec. 2-13, 2009. Stamkos has just six shots in five games, with Kucherov racking up four (on 12 shot attempts) Saturday. In the third, Stamkos found a streaking Andrej Sustr, who hit the post.
"That's the thing, someone has got to make plays and someone's got to shoot it," Stamkos said. "I thought Kuch had a lot of quality chances tonight. I don't mind feeding him the puck in the slot. There's some chances for a shot, but I try to make the best plays available for a goal."
Bishop, who entered Saturday tied with Washington's Braden Holtby for the lowest goals against average, had little margin for error. Bishop gave up a highlight-reel goal by Evgeny Kuznetsov and a weird-angled bank shot by Jay Beagle. "Pretty lucky," Bishop said. "Can't really do anything different."
First—1, Washington, Beagle 4 (Galiev), 2:09. Penalties—T.Wilson, Was, major (fighting), 10:05; Blunden, TB, served by Marchessault, minor-major (roughing, fighting), 10:05; Filppula, TB (hooking), 12:06; Backstrom, Was (goaltender interference), 19:57.
Second—2, Washington, Kuznetsov 9 (Carlson), 11:16. Penalties—Niskanen, Was (tripping), 4:47; Schmidt, Was, major (fighting), 13:55; J.Brown, TB, major (fighting), 13:55.
Third—3, Tampa Bay, Kucherov 11 (Stralman, Stamkos), 8:05 (pp). Penalties—Kuznetsov, Was (tripping), 4:36; Niskanen, Was (tripping), 7:33. Shots—Washington 9-10-1—20. Tampa Bay 11-10-15—36. Power plays—Washington 0 of 2; Tampa Bay 1 of 4. Goalies—Washington, Holtby 18-4-1 (36 shots-35 saves). Tampa Bay, Bishop 12-9-2 (20-18). A—19,092 (19,204). T—2:32.