WASHINGTON — The Lightning was not eliminated from the playoff race after Sunday's hard-fought 4-2 loss to the Capitals at the Verizon Center.
But any dim hopes it had of mounting a push — and those hopes were remote, at best — are just about extinguished.
"But we're not giving up," captain Vinny Lecavalier said. "We're going to finish hard. You never know what is going to happen."
True, but consider that Tampa Bay (16-20-2) is eight points behind first-place Washington in the Southeast Division, with the Jets and Hurricanes ahead of them as well with 10 games left.
The Lightning is eight points out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. But sitting in 14th, it would have to jump six teams to get there. And Tampa Bay is just two points ahead of the Panthers, last in the East.
"We're getting better as a team," coach Jon Cooper said. "The problem is we're just running out of time.
"I guess ultimately you see what these guys have character-wise, because they have every right to throw in the towel and say we're too far out. Or they can rally the troops and get ready for Ottawa (on Tuesday). Until we get that little mark that says we're out (of the playoffs), we keep going."
The Lightning's puck possession was much improved over Saturday's loss to the Islanders, as was the time Tampa Bay spent in the offensive zone despite the Capitals' 38-30 shot advantage.
But Tampa Bay couldn't hold a 2-1 second-period lead built on goals by Lecavalier and Alex Killorn. It also could not finish prime scoring chances. Lecavalier had three in the first period on which he couldn't beat goalie Michal Neuvirth.
"Any time you miss, you wish you could do something differently, but the opportunities were there," Lecavalier said. "I wish I had them back."
The Capitals got second-period goals from Alex Ovechkin, on a deflection; John Carlson, whose shot ricocheted off the stick of Lightning defenseman Eric Brewer; and Joel Ward, who beat goalie Ben Bishop short side after a pass attempt deflected back to him off the stick of Tampa Bay's Nate Thompson.
Cooper called them "seeing-eye singles."
"He tries to pass to the middle. It goes off his stick, so right back to him," Bishop, otherwise solid with 34 saves, said of Ward's winner. "I'm reading the first play."
Ovechkin finished with an empty-net goal scored despite Killorn, from the bench, reaching over the boards with his stick to disrupt the play.
"Losses like these are tough to swallow," Killorn said, "but until we're mathematically out of it, we're going to play as hard as we can."
First Period—1, Tampa Bay, Lecavalier 8 (St. Louis, Salo), 1:52 (pp). Penalties—Oleksy, Was (interference), 1:45; Aulie, TB (cross-checking), 6:55; Backstrom, Was (tripping), 18:40.
Second Period—2, Washington, Ovechkin 24 (Hillen, Backstrom), 3:14. 3, Tampa Bay, Killorn 7 (Lecavalier, Carle), 6:37. 4, Washington, Carlson 6 (Ward, Hillen), 12:54. 5, Washington, Ward 8 (Perreault, Chimera), 16:21. Penalties—Stamkos, TB (holding), 17:32; St. Louis, TB (roughing), 19:50; Fehr, Was (roughing), 19:50.
Third Period—6, Washington, Ovechkin 25 (Ribeiro), 19:55 (en). Penalties—None. Shots on Goal—Tampa Bay 10-9-11—30. Washington 13-13-12—38. Power-play opportunities—Tampa Bay 1 of 2; Washington 0 of 2. Goalies—Tampa Bay, Bishop 9-7-0 (37 shots-34 saves). Washington, Neuvirth 3-5-1 (30-28). A—18,506 (18,506). T—2:34. Referees—Chris Rooney, Ian Walsh. Linesmen—Thor Nelson, Brian Mach.