The Washington Times - May 4, 2011, 02:25AM

TAMPA, Fla. | Forty-five times this season the Capitals scored three or more goals in a game. Their record in the first 44 was 41-0-3. Now it’s 41-1-3 – and that 1 symbolizes effectively the end of their season.

And it’s all because of a disastrous third period in their 4-3 Game 3 loss to the Lightning that included some complacent play, a couple bad mistakes and a memorable meltdown.

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“We lapse for a certain amount of time. We get up, and I think we think it’s over. Guys just relax a little bit and then they just come,” center Jason Arnott said. “In the playoffs you gotta be focused and ready on every shift, and if you’re not bad things happen.”

Disastrous things. It was an almost unbelievable turn of events as a 3-2 lead turned into a 4-3 deficit in a matter of 24 seconds. But it began well before Steven Stamkos’ tying goal at the 5:23 mark of the third.

The Caps during the second period were everything right about hockey and how stars need to play. Alex Ovechkin had a spring in his stride that was absent for much of the series and was the best player on the ice as Washington took the lead.

Then, players started sitting back. And they can’t explain why.

“I can’t put my finger on it, because we were playing good. We got a little bit complacent, I think, with the lead there,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “You always wanna play smart, protect the lead, but you can’t play too safe – everybody knows that. I think we just took our foot off the gas for a little bit, and we got bit in the back.”

Give some credit to the Lightning for being very opportunistic. Coach Bruce Boudreau knew that, though.

“I wasn’t surprised by what I saw from Tampa,” he said. “I’m surprised that some of our guys panicked a little bit from behind, but I think that comes when you’re down 2-0 in the series. You’re pushing and they’re coming on pretty hard. They played a great third period.”

The Caps did not. And it was encapsulated by one 30-second span. It all started with a failed clear by Eric Fehr that led to the puck going from Viktor Hedman’s stick to Steven Stamkos’ stick to the upper-left corner of the net behind Michal Neuvirth.

“It was a bad clearing by Eric Fehr, and it went right to their player that gave it to Stamkos who has a great shot,” Boudreau said.

Twenty-four seconds later the red light was on again. Adam Hall outworked Alex Ovechkin in the neutral zone (Ovechkin then stopped skating past the red line), and then sent the puck up the right wing to Nate Thompson, who found a streaking Ryan Malone heading to the crease. The puck went in off Malone and this collapse was complete.

Boudreau said the goal never should have been allowed because Malone pushed defenseman John Carlson into Neuvirth.

“Malone’s driving to the net and pushes our player into our goaltender and he can’t kick out his right leg to make the save. It’s a no-goal, no-penalty call,” Boudreau said. “It’s one of the best referees in the league [Paul Devorski] and I fully respect him, but I don’t think it should’ve counted.”

It’s debatable, and perhaps in the middle of the season with a different referee or situation it’s not a goal. But the Caps never had to be in that situation. They know how to hold onto leads but couldn’t this time.

Mike Knuble admitted being “flabbergasted” about the whole situation.

“We’ve done it all year – we’ve been 3-2 in the third period going in and close out the game. I don’t know,” he said. “They just pressed and waited and got one and another 30 seconds later they got another one. It’s like they’re snapping their fingers. I don’t know what it is.”

But there was still 14:13 left when Malone scored – plenty of time to tie the score and make this a series. Neuvirth made save after save down the stretch, but that was part of the problem: The Lightning carried the play even against a desperate Caps team needing a goal in the worst possible way.

The Caps managed just four shots in those last 14-plus minutes. Arnott deemed it a “learning experience,” but he and his teammates better learn quick.

“We’ve got to learn how to play 60 minutes solid defensively and not give up odd-man rushes and especially back-to-back goals like that,” he said. “When they get a goal, we have to be even more prepared to go out and have a big shift after that.”

When they didn’t, they got pushed to the edge of summer.