TAMPA, Fla. -- The Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning left the Tampa Bay Times Forum on Thursday night in vastly different conditions than after their season opener in January.
A 4-3 Washington victory left the teams just two points apart in the Southeast Division standings, but the Capitals continued to settle after a horrendous start the campaign, winning their third straight.
Meanwhile, the Lightning (6-6-1, 13 points) lost for the sixth consecutive time despite another feverish last-ditch rush. Roles and outlooks have reversed for both teams, with the Capitals laboriously rounding into shape under first-year coach Adam Oates' new system, and the Lightning, winners of five of its first six, struggling for answers.
"It's not one of those games where I can go into the room and start pointing the finger at guys," Lightning coach Guy Boucher said. "The players gave everything they had today."
Braden Holtby was sharp in goal for the Capitals in one of his better games of the season. His ill-fated decision to challenge Nate Thompson on a late breakaway -- which led to the final Lightning score with 3:13 left -- was one of his few physical or mental lapses.
Meanwhile, third-line winger Eric Fehr, who struggled through a flat and injury-marred year in Winnipeg last season and battled recurring shoulder problems, scored two goals and Mathieu Perreault had three assists for Washington.
Washington (5-8-1, 11 points), playing with much better intensity and precision than on opening night, took a 1-0 lead with less than three minutes gone by generating a power play that Troy Brouwer turned into a goal.
But just like a shootout loss at home to Montreal on Tuesday, they started giving it too late. Tampa Bay scored three times in the final seven minutes to force overtime in that game and exploited a late Caps faceoff mistake and defensive blip to make it close on Thursday.
Brouwer wristed in a shot from the slot to beat Mathieu Garon after taking a pass from the side of the net. It was Brouwer's seventh goal.
Martin St. Louis' first goal in 11 games and fourth of the season tied the game, 1-1, with 11:37 left in the period when he collected a rebound from a Holtby save and jammed the puck in near side before the goaltender could recoup. Holtby made 27 saves and "played great," Oates said, except for gambling on the breakaway.
Washington retook the lead with 14:51 left in the second period when Joel Ward beat defenseman Matt Carle to a puck behind the Tampa Bay net, negating icing, and flipped the puck back to Fehr for a close tapper. Washington led, 2-1, entering the third.
Fehr added another from much farther away for a 3-1 lead less than three minutes into the third period when he crushed a shot over Garon's glove from beyond the faceoff circle on a 2-on-2 breakout.
"I definitely want to help contribute," said Fehr, playing his second stint in Washington. "I wasn't happy with the way my season went at all last year. I really wanted to turn it around and am feeling pretty confident right now."
As did the Capitals when Jay Beagle upped the lead to 4-1 with a grinder goal in the crease with 12:31 remaining.
But Teddy Purcell ignited Tampa Bay when he scored with 7:58 remaining off a faceoff mistake by Washington and Thompson cut the deficit to 4-3 with 3:13 left when he took a pass from St. Louis to split the defense, juke Holtby and score on a break.
"They're too good of a team to climb back into a game," Purcell said. "Our work ethic is there, but we just need to keep working hard all the time.
NOTES: Brouwer has at least a goal in three straight games. ... Washington defenseman John Carlson played in his 200th NHL game. ... St. Louis scored a goal for the first time in 11 games. ... The Lightning has sold out all seven home games this season. ... Washington ended a four-game losing streak to Tampa Bay. ... The Lightning leads the league in goals (46) but has scored just 12 in its last six games. ... Holtby said he decided to challenge Thompson on the breakaway when the forward momentarily lost control of the puck. Thompson recovered to scoot it in the goal ... Washington forward Brooks Laich has been cleared for contact as he attempts to return from a groin injury suffered playing in Switzerland during the NHL lockout. ... Tampa Bay and Montreal swapped minor league goaltenders on Tuesday, Dustin Tokarsk, 23, (18-8-4, 2.46 GAA, .900 save percentage at Syracuse) going to Montreal in exchange for Cedrick Desjardins, 27 (7-13-2, with a 2.94, .905 save percentage for Hamilton). Desjardins played for the Lightning in 2010-11, winning twice. ... Benoit Pouliot now has seven points (2 goals, 5 assists) in his last eight games with an assist tonight on Martin St. Louis first period goal. ... Purcell extended his point streak against the Capitals to six games dating back to last season with a goal in the third period. ... Steven Stamkos now has registered six points (two goals, four assists) in his last three games against the Capitals. ... St. Louis had a goal and an assist and now has 13 assists over the last 10 games. ...With two goals in the third period, the Lightning has 24, ranking first in the NHL.