The Capitals' season has come down to 27 hours — 27 hours in Tampa, where Games 3 and 4 against the Lightning will be played Tuesday and Wednesday. If they can't make something happen then, can't plug in their power play, can't get luck on their side, they might be coming back only to clean out their lockers.
"We're going there, and we're going to win two games," Alex Ovechkin said Sunday night at emptied out Verizon Center. "It's going to be hard, but we know the situation: We have to win."
What else could he say, though? The Capitals had just fallen behind 2-zip in the series by losing 3-2 in overtime after — add this to your list of nightmares, Caps fans — a bad line change led to Vince Lecavalier's goal, his second of the evening. Scott Hannan "shouldn't have come off," Bruce Boudreau said, "and the guys coming on [Jeff Schultz and Mike Green] didn't come on nearly as quickly as they should have."
Hannan, standup veteran that he is, volunteered to "take the blame for that." He was "a little tired," he said, and "thought I could get off in time [before Tampa Bay started closing in on outmanned Michal Neuvirth]. I obviously couldn't. It was a bad play."
Poor Mr. Hannan has been in the middle of a lot of things in this series. In the opener, a shot ricocheted off his stick and into the net to tie the game at 2. It was just the lift the Lightning needed to add the winning score three minutes later.
And for those of you scoring at home, a similar misfortune befell Green early in the third period Sunday night with the clubs deadlocked at 1. Tampa Bay's Martin St. Louis fired a shot from a sharp angle that missed the net but banked in off the skate of the defenseman, who was standing guard in the crease.
So that's one way to look at the series so far: Two wayward shots that caromed off the Capitals' equipment have put them in a gigantic, perhaps inescapable, hole.
Consider: In two-plus games, the Lightning have put the puck past Neuvirth exactly four times. On the other two Tampa Bay scores — excluding their empty-netter — the goal went to Fate on an assist by Destiny.
But, hey, that's the playoffs for you. Fate and Destiny always come up big at this time of year. The games, many of them, are so low-scoring and so close that it doesn't take much to tip the balance one way or the other. Right now it's tipping decidedly in the Lightning's direction, and the Caps are heading to Tampa with one skate in the grave.
What really hurt about Sunday night's loss is that it wasted the heroics of Ovechkin, who beat the Lightning's Dwayne Roloson from close range with 1:08 left in regulation — and the Washington net empty — to send it into OT. To lose after your best player scores one of the most timely goals of his career . . . What a killer.
"I thought we had all the momentum, frankly, for about 45 minutes of that game," Boudreau said. "But I felt quite comfortable going into overtime, rolling four lines and six defensemen."
Obviously, he shouldn't have. When the Capitals goofed getting on and off the ice about six minutes into the extra session, the Lightning were quick to take advantage. Teddy Purcell slid a pass from the left wing to the unattended Lecavalier in front, and the latter flipped the puck over the sprawling Neuvirth.
And it couldn't have come at a better time, according to Boucher. "We couldn't have gone to a second overtime with our guys [who are coming off a seven-game series and didn't have the services of wing Simon Gagne and defenseman Pavel Kubina] that tired," he said.
This series has become one of frustration for the Capitals — and the importance of not giving in to it. Tampa Bay's trapping defensive style tests a team's patience, and the Caps' continuing inability get their power play going — they came up empty in six tries in Game 2 — is enough to make Ovechkin and Co. snap their sticks in half.
This, of course, is exactly what the Lightning want. It's what any Capitals playoff opponent wants. After all, it's hard to beat the Caps, talented as they are, by matching up man to man with them. It's much easier to try to get them to beat themselves.
The Capitals gave in to impatience in the opener — forcing the action when they should have just protected their 2-1 lead — and it cost them the game and the home-ice advantage. Sunday night they held it together much better, but not well enough to avoid another defeat. Is the end in sight for them? Not if you buy what Boucher said:
"I've always believed it's not about momentum, it's about desperation."
Desperation. That might be the only place right now where the Caps have an edge. And it's a sizable one.
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