TAMPA, Fla. | Poised after 40 minutes to make this a series and ensure a Game 5 Saturday at Verizon Center, the Washington Capitals needed less than a minute to completely melt down.
When the Tampa Bay Lightning were able to take advantage of some mistakes and got a break, they handed the Caps a devastating 4-3 loss in Game 3 on Tuesday night at St. Pete Times Forum that dropped them into an almost insurmountable 3-0 series deficit.
"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 got to be focused and ready on every shift, and if you're not bad things happen. It's another learning experience for us — backs against the wall. Nothing to lose now, we have to win [Wednesday].
One minute of bad hockey was all it took — and in this series it's not surprising. Coach Bruce Boudreau and his players were quietly confident going into this one that they could get right back in this.
Instead, it went the other way. Washington now is on the brink of being swept and facing an early elimination as the top seed in the Eastern Conference for the second straight season. They had a 3-2 lead and were sitting pretty because left wing Alex Ovechkin turned up his game and for the first time all series looked like the best player on the ice.
About five minutes into the third period, things went horribly awry. A failed clear by Eric Fehr allowed Lightning center Steven Stamkos to fire a perfect wrist shot through a screen and past goalie Michal Neuvirth. Just 24 seconds later, Nate Thompson threw the puck in front and it went in off Ryan Malone in the crease. Boudreau said it shouldn't have been a goal because Malone pushed defenseman John Carlson into Neuvirth.
And while Neuvirth gave his teammates every chance possible to tie the score and force overtime, Dwayne Roloson made the necessary stops on the other end.
Just like that, the Caps are one loss away from pulling out the golf clubs and an uncertain offseason.
"They're uncanny when they want to get a goal. Its like they just snap their fingers or hit a button. They just dial it up. Its like they're flipping a switch," a disgusted Mike Knuble said. "I don't know what it is. It leaves you flabbergasted; you don't know what to say about it."
For a while it looked like they would make this a series because Ovechkin was a force in the second period, but players admitted they got complacent and it cost them the game.
"We weren't supposed to play [safe]," Boudreau said. "We knew we had to keep pushing and do what we do. But a giveaway and a great shot and another goal that shouldn't have counted."
They face elimination Wednesday night in Game 4. The Caps believe they can erase the 3-0 deficit and win, a feat that has only been done three times in NHL history. Asked what it would take to get it done, Karl Alzner was blunt.
"It's going to take everything we have," he said.
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