The Washington Times - May 6, 2011, 11:35PM

TAMPA, Fla.

The Capitals were in a dangerous place Wednesday night as they gathered themselves for Game 3 of the Lightning series. Not only were they staring down the barrel of a second-round sweep, they were also running the risk of being dismissed forevermore as overhyped, underachieving and, worst of all, missing what Charlie Sheen would call the “winning” gene.

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Oh, the Caps win plenty in the regular season, make no mistake about that. But when the playoffs roll around – we’re talking four years in a row now – they’re indistinguishable from all the other wannabes who get knocked out in the first or second round. They’re like a golfer who can’t win a major, like one of those poor Brits who never get to the final at Wimbledon. They keep that kind of miserable company.

In fact, if you were going to compare them to somebody in another sport, it would probably be Sergio Garcia. Sergio was capable of wondrous things at a young age – even challenging Tiger Woods for the PGA Championship at 19 – but that was 12 years and many missed opportunities ago. These days, Sergio looks more like an aging member of the Rat Pack than like somebody who’ll be kissing a Claret Jug anytime soon.

Is that what it’s going to be like for some of these Capitals a decade hence? Are we going to be looking at Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, shaking our heads with bemusement, and thinking: What might have been? Heck, a decade from now, Ovie will just be coming to the end of his 13-year contract, and Nick has a deal until 2020. If they’re still together then, every season will be like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and the rest of the good-time gang coming back to play the Strip – that is, unless the Caps figure out a way to break through the glass ceiling.

Youth is great – usually. When you can earn the first seed in the East two years running, with a roster filled with kids in their early 20s, you can dream great dreams, imagine filling your trophy case with Stanley Cups. But sometimes youth can be a hindrance, and the Capitals might be at that point. Sometimes youth can cause you to overlook issues in the rose-colored hope that, over time, they’ll work themselves out.

And then suddenly you wake up one morning, and Sergio Garcia is 31.

Patience is great, too – usually. And Ted Leonsis has it in abundance. In retrospect, though, he might not have been doing anybody any favors when he said (and I’m relying on memory here), “I don’t want us to be good for one year. I want us to be good for 10 years. And then some year, when he stars align – and maybe we don’t have a penalty called on us in overtime of Game 7 – we’ll win the Cup.”

The problem with a statement like that, mentally healthy though it is, is that it doesn’t create any sense of urgency. And professional athletes, I’m convinced, need a sense of urgency from above, an expectation. They need the boss saying (if he honestly feels that way), “We’re good enough to win right now.” Not constant Steinbrennerian badgering necessarily, just occasional nudges in the ribs.

Has Ted ever said anything that definitive? Or is he too concerned about piling additional pressure on all his twentysomethings?

It’ll be interesting to see the excuses that get made if the Capitals go down in flames against the Lightning. Yes, the five-day layoff after routing the Rangers wasn’t ideal. Yes, Tampa Bay has benefited from a couple of billiard-shot goals. And yes, another referee might not have penalized the Caps for having too many men on the ice in Game 3, which wiped out Mike Knuble’s power-play score.

But even Bruce Boudreau admitted Wednesday that “some players are not producing like they were in the Rangers series.” Beyond that, every playoff essentially comes down to “one-on-one battles, winning the loose pucks and the will to get the pucks,” he said. And at key times in each game, particularly in the third period, the Lightning have taken the play away from the Capitals.

Yet, after the Caps lost at St. Pete Times Forum to fall behind 3-0, Ovechkin continued to contend they “dominated” their opponents. As fine as the line can be sometimes between bravado and blindness, this really isn’t something you want your captain saying on the eve of an elimination game. I mean, how about expressing a little contrition – and some understanding of how you got in this mess?

Let’s face it, there’s a lot you can question about the Capitals besides just Boudreau’s coaching. You can also question the mindset in the locker room, what’s going on between the players’ ears. Terrific young players aren’t always destined to become even more terrific older players. Sometimes they just become Sergio Garcia.