TAMPA, Fla. | It's all coming unraveled for the Washington Capitals. Eight years in the assembling, Southeast Division champs for the past four, they're the pot that never boils, the firecracker that never goes off.
A picture of desperation when Game 3 against the Lightning began Tuesday, the Caps were a monument to futility before it was over. But, hey, at least they finally solved Tampa Bay's confounding penalty-kill tactics. (Of course, they had too many skaters on the ice when Mike Knuble banged home a rebound in the first period, so the score didn't count. At least they proved, though — then and later, when they were gifted with a 5-on-3 — that the Lightning goal isn't covered with plexiglass in those situations.)
That mind-boggling episode — a screwed-up line change that cost the Capitals a goal and a power play — pretty well summed up why Tampa Bay won 4-3 and is on the verge of an unthinkable sweep. Fortunately for the Caps, they won't be able to beat themselves up for too long. Game 4 is Wednesday night in the same deafening place, St. Pete Times Forum.
"It's too bad we're playing [Wednesday]," Knuble said. "If we had a day [to regroup] ... But what are you going to say about it?"
Let's face it, there won't be a Game 5 if the Capitals keep doing what they've been doing: giving up the first goal (they're 3-for-3 in that department), leaving goalie Michal Neuvirth defenseless far too often (as on Sean Bergenheim's goal Tuesday night to open the scoring) and, well, not being able to count to five (skaters).
What made the too-many-men gaffe all the more galling is that the Caps had lost the previous game — and put themselves in a 2-0 series hole — by messing up another line change, this one in overtime. You'd think these guys hadn't been playing together, most of them, for several years. Suddenly they can't get on and off the ice in an orderly fashion?
Naturally, coach Bruce Boudreau wasn't a big fan of the call, saying the extra man "didn't even make it past the red line. Nobody got into the play." How exactly did it happen? "[Brooks] Laich took a puck in the mouth and needed about 12 stitches. [Alexander] Semin went in and [John] Carlson went in, and only Carlson was supposed to go in."
The Capitals responded to this punch in the gut with 20 of their best minutes of the playoffs in the second period. Working hard and putting pucks on Dwayne Roloson, they briefly went ahead 2-1 on goals by Knuble (off a behind-the-net feed by Alex Ovechkin) and Carlson (on a blast from the right point).
But the Lightning have been terrific counterpunchers — pouncing on Capitals mistakes and answering Capitals goals — and they did it again 3:53 later when Vinny Lecavalier set up in the crease, outmaneuvered Jeff Schultz after Martin St. Louis threw the puck in front, and tied it at 2.
"It seemed like they were tired," Karl Alzner said. "But they weren't. They kept coming. They found their legs again. They're resilient. They never say die. They're doing all the things you need to do to be successful, and we're not doing enough of them right now."
Just when the pendulum seemed to be swinging back toward Tampa Bay, though, Washington found itself with a lengthy 5-on-3 and finally broke its power play drought with an Ovechkin follow-up of a shot by Semin.
Granted, they needed a two-man advantage to break through, but all night they had been doing a better job of getting pressure on Roloson, much as Jason Arnott had prescribed earlier in the day. "We're trying to create as much as we can and attempt as many shots as we can," he said. "Sometimes it just doesn't go in. We've just got to watch the video and see what we can do different, and stay positive with it. If we get frustrated and start shooting it from everywhere, that's not going to work."
The Capitals had scored three goals in a period only once before in these playoffs — in that memorable third period at Madison Square Garden, when they came from 3-0 down to send it into OT and eventually beat the New York Rangers. Had the offense, which had been having such trouble against the Lightning's neutral-zone trapping, finally gotten untracked?
Uh, no. It took just 5:23 for Steven Stamkos to blast one over Neuvirth's right shoulder and make it 3-3. Ryan Malone followed with another score 24 seconds later, barging into the crease and knocking bodies around, and the end was looking very near for the Caps.
There was still plenty of time left if they wanted to make one last push. But as we saw in the first three games, Tampa Bay is awfully tough in the third period with a lead. A Washington power play at about the halfway point produced nothing — except a short-handed breakaway by Bergenheim that Neuvirth foiled — and the Lightning had the upper hand from there on out.
Like the first two, this game fell into the shoulda, coulda, woulda category for the Capitals. They had two leads and couldn't protect them, and now they're only 60 minutes from elimination — by a team they went 4-1-1 against in the regular season.
(The Lightning are hardly unbeatable at home, either, not that that matters much anymore. In the first round, they lost Games 3 and 4 to the Pittsburgh Penguins here.)
And so we move on to the second half of this brutal back-to-back — which, in the Caps' case, is looking more and more like a back-to-Washington-to-say-our-goodbyes. Bruce Boudreau doesn't have many more cards to play, and a goalie change seems about as gratuitous now as it did before Game 3. But a coach has to do something to try to break the cycle, doesn't he?
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