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TAMPA, Fla. | Coach Bruce Boudreau likes to say that good things happen when your best players play like it. Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin are those guys for the Washington Capitals.
Against the Tampa Bay Lightning, that elite trio didn’t put together anything resembling an elite performance. And when they couldn’t lift their play in Game 4 on Wednesday night, the Caps were left with a 5-3 defeat and a series sweep in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
"I don’t think any of us saw this coming down like it did," veteran right wing Mike Knuble said. "That was the last thing in our minds."
A season that started with Stanley Cup aspirations that lingered into the past week came to an abrupt end in a game that the Caps admitted they were outworked in. When Tampa Bay got breaks and chances, it capitalized, while the Caps couldn’t get it done.
It all starts with the stars. The effort was there, Boudreau said, but the execution was lacking.
"I don’t think any team can win – any team – when your star players aren’t getting the points that are needed to," Boudreau said. "I’ve watched an awful lot of hockey in my day, and it very rarely happens when your best players aren’t your best players."
Ovechkin finished with 10 points in nine playoff games – and two fewer goals (five) than Lightning third-liner Sean Bergenheim managed in 11. Tampa Bay captain Vinny Lecavalier seemed to raise his game in this series, and Hart Trophy finalist Marty St. Louis was his usual dominating self at times.
"We want to win, but we didn’t win," Ovechkin said. "They play their system and when they have a chance to score, they score. We didn’t."
Ovechkin stopped skating on Tampa Bay’s winning goal in Game 3 and lacked some hustle Wednesday night, as well. But Boudreau defended his superstar following Game 4.
"I think our best player tonight was our best player," the coach said. "In the last two games, he showed why he’s one of the top 10 players on the planet. I thought he did everything he could."
Nicklas Backstrom finished the playoffs with just two assists and wasn’t himself. He went 106 minutes, 13 seconds without a shot starting in Game 2 and lasting into the third period of Game 4.
"Nicky Backstrom didn’t score, but no one’s going to stand up here and tell me he didn’t try," Boudreau said. "It’s not that he wasn’t putting himself in position or anything else, it’s just things weren’t going. Unfortunately, sometimes that happens. It happened to him for a while. It’s something like a snowball, it just keeps building."
Semin was virtually invisible with the Caps’ season on the line and had just six points.
Meanwhile, the rest of the Caps kept making those little mistakes that get magnified come playoff time. Marco Sturm’s penalty led to the Lightning’s fourth goal that more or less put it away; Sean Collins’ defensive lapse led to one earlier.
"They just outplayed us," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "They were the better team tonight, the last game and the other two games before that."
And because of those errors, the Caps had to hear the chants of "sweep" from the St. Pete Times Forum crowd in the waning minutes. And now they’re left to wonder about what could change – with the roster and possibly Boudreau losing his job.
"I’m glad I don’t have to make that decision as a player," Knuble said. "That’s a knee-jerk reaction. You’ve got to blow it up or change it. I think that’s a real knee-jerk and [GM George McPhee] isn’t like that.
"Will there be changes? Of course there’s going to be and who knows what it is going to be, probably rightfully so. As far as who it is going to be – there will be some different faces here next year. That’s a guarantee probably."
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