WASHINGTON — You don't often sense frustration in captain Steven Stamkos' voice, at least not this season.
With the Lightning off to its best start in franchise history, there haven't been many reasons to chide. Every criticism seems nitpicky. But after the Lightning got outworked and outplayed in a 3-1 loss to the Capitals on Friday, Stamkos wasn't going to mince words.
Stamkos has lost a lot in the nation's capital, dropping 11 of the past 12 regular-season meetings at the now-Capital One Arena. But it's how this loss went down that was most troubling to the league's leading scorer.
"They were the hungrier team in the first two periods, and it showed," Stamkos said. "When we decided to play in the third period, it was the case of too little, too late."
It was the second loss in the past three games for the Lightning (16-4-2), which has run into its first bit of adversity this season. There's an easy fix, however. Coach Jon Cooper said the team has lacked the "60-minute fire" that lifted it to the best record in the league.
This game marked three straight slow starts. The Lightning's rally from a two-goal deficit Wednesday against the Blackhawks is the only reason it's not staring at a three-game slide.
"I think we think we're a little bit better than we are," Cooper said. "There's a reason why we have the record we have, because we've worked to get there. And I just don't know if we're putting the same kind of effort, that urgency, determination that got us off to the start that we did.
"The league is too good. You think you're going to win, but you actually have to go out and give the effort to win. And in the last few games, we haven't seen that from our group."
It looked good early. The Lightning actually struck first, on a power-play goal by Vladislav Namestnikov just more than a minute in. Nikita Kucherov snapped his two-game point drought with an assist, his wrist shot going in off Namestnikov.
But the Capitals soon took control. They created several quality looks in the first period, Alex Ovechkin finally tying it late in the first with a one-timer off the rush. Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy once again kept the Lightning in the game with 28 saves in the first two periods. This one wouldn't have been close without him. Sound familiar?
"They outskated us, competed harder. They were winning 50-50 battles," center Tyler Johnson said. "We've got to do a better job. If it wasn't for 'Vasy,' the score would have been a lot to a little."
Johnson had a golden opportunity to help the Lightning regain the lead, and momentum, midway through the second period. He sprung free on a shorthanded breakaway. But Johnson couldn't cash in. A few minutes later, the Capitals took the lead for good, when Devante Smith-Pelly pounced on a rebound off the rush. Both of Washington's goals came off 3-on-2s.
"I wish I would have scored on it," Johnson said. "It's a tough play when you're going that hard. I thought I had a lot of room there but unfortunately didn't get it high enough."
The Lightning's top line of Stamkos, Kucherov and Namestnikov have a combined four points in the past three games (all coming on the power play). They were a combined minus-6 Friday, their four shots more than doubled by Ovechkin's nine.
"We have to be better — our line, myself, our team," Stamkos said. "Everyone has to be better if we want to expect to stay an elite team in this league. We've shown it in spurts, but we have to be consistent."
Every team, even the best ones, goes through lulls. The key is not letting them linger, and tonight's game against the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins provides a great opportunity for a bounce-back.
"That's the good thing about this league. You can play (bad) like this and you can forget about it and go at it (tonight) again," defenseman Anton Stralman said. "That's what we're going to do."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.
First Period—1, Tampa Bay, Namestnikov 10 (Hedman, Kucherov), 1:22 (pp). 2, Washington, Ovechkin 15 (Backstrom, Wilson), 18:36. Penalties—Orpik, WSH, (hooking), 0:44; Palat, TB, (hooking), 13:27.
Second Period—3, Washington, Smith-Pelly 3 (Orlov, Beagle), 14:36. Penalties—Gourde, TB, (hooking), 8:37; Namestnikov, TB, (tripping), 11:15.
Third Period—4, Washington, Beagle 3 (Niskanen), 17:52. Penalties—Kuznetsov, WSH, (high sticking), 11:06; Kuznetsov, WSH, (slashing), 18:11. Shots on Goal—Tampa Bay 7-9-10—26. Washington 16-14-8—38. Power-play opportunities—Tampa Bay 1 of 3; Washington 0 of 3. Goalies—Tampa Bay, Vasilevskiy 15-3-1 (37 shots-35 saves). Washington, Grubauer 1-5-1 (26-25). A—18,506 (18,277). T—2:25. Referees—Graham Skilliter, Justin St Pierre. Linesmen—Derek Amell, David Brisebois.