Cliff Welch/Icon SMI)
In what is seemingly becoming a weekly occurrence, the Washington Capitals lost a key game in their attempt to return to the postseason. This time is was a 4-2 loss Monday in Tampa Bay.
After tying the score at 2 on Jason Chimera’s rebound goal with less than four minutes remaining, the Capitals allowed Steven Stamkos to score twice — the game winner at 18:57 and an empty-netter — to deprive Washington of two crucial points in the standings.
It was the second game back for Nicklas Backstrom after being out nearly three months with complications following a concussion, but the dynamic center has been understandably unable to make an impact thus far after a long absence.
But also failing to contribute offensively is defenseman Mike Green. Once the game’s most lethal blueline threat, Green has battled injuries the past two seasons and since rejoining the lineup on Feb. 18 has just one assist in 20 games. That’s a dramatic drop off for a player who scored a combined 50 goals and 149 points in 143 games in 2008-09 and 2009-10.
With both Backstrom and Green proving to be non-factors the second half of the season, the Capitals find themselves closer to the draft lottery than a fifth consecutive Southeast Division title. Washington now must sit back and watch the Buffalo-Toronto game Tuesday, where a Sabres win would again tie the teams for eighth place in the conference with just two games apiece remaining.
The Capitals remain the odds-on favorite to earn the eighth seed since they own the tiebreaker over Buffalo, but their inability to win big games puts the pressure squarely on them. Even if they do reach the postseason, Florida now needs just two points in their final three games to win the Southeast Division.
Furthermore, the Capitals have to do it without Tomas Vokoun, who is out for the balance of the regular season and perhaps any playoff run with another groin injury. While Vokoun has hardly been as impactful as expected when he signed a one-year, $1.5 million contract this offseason, he’s still Washington’s most experienced goaltender and has 25 of their 40 wins this season. Michael Neuvirth — who got the loss Monday — and Braden Holtby will man the nets the rest of the way.
Southeast Division Notes
Tampa Bay Lightning – Stamkos’s two goals in the Lightning’s 4-2 win over Atlanta pushed him to 58 on the season — 10 more than second place Evgeni Malkin and 18 more than Marian Gaborik. Stamkos’s 46 even-strength goals are the most since Teemu Selanne had 52 in his record-breaking rookie season in 1992-93. He also now leads the NHL in game-winning goals with 12. Only seven players have had more than that in a season, with Hall of Famer Phil Esposito notching 16 twice.
Winnipeg Jets – The Jets recalled Patrice Cormier — part of the return Atlanta received for dealing Ilya Kovalchuk to New Jersey in 2010 — from St. John’s of the AHL after Kyle Wellwood was lost for the balance of the season with a broken foot. Cormier has no points in six games with Winnipeg this season, but has 17 goals and 14 assists in 54 games with the IceCaps.
Follow Cory Lavalette on Twitter at twitter.com/corylav