- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 20, 2003

The Washington Capitals' first-year coach and half his players aren't responsible for any of the franchise's lengthy history of playoff disasters. But unless Bruce Cassidy and his suddenly punchless team bounce back from three straight defeats today against the Tampa Bay Lightning they'll add another chapter to a story full of heartbreak and unhappy endings.
"If you want to go that route, Tampa Bay has never won a playoff series [0-for-1]," Caps coach Butch Cassidy said yesterday as his team prepared for Game6 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals at MCI Center. "[Lightning goalie] Nikolai Khabibulin has never won a playoff series [in four tries with Winnipeg and Phoenix]. Will that affect him tomorrow? That makes for good reading and good television, but it has no influence on what goes on out on the ice. How many guys in that room were never a part of that [history]?"
Ten Caps who have played in this series are in their first postseason with Washington. However, that still leaves 10 other players who have experienced such sure triumphs turning into agonizing defeats. Remember the blown 3-1 series leads against Pittsburgh in 1992 and 1995 or the 2-0 advantage coming home that wound up as a 4-2 loss to the Penguins in 1996. An amazing 11 of Washington's previous 17 playoff appearances have ended with three or four straight defeats. That would be the case if Tampa Bay wins again today.
In other words, once the Caps start losing in the postseason, they can't stop.
"I don't think we're cursed," said defenseman Ken Klee, a veteran of six Washington postseasons. "Hockey's a game of confidence. When you're playing well, good things happen.
"Guys are concerned that we didn't win last night, but we haven't lost anything yet either. The first two periods last night, we played unbelievable. If the puck goes in, we're off and rolling. We just need to stay with the mentality that we're going to win. We'll come out flying. We're at home. We've been playing well at home all year [24-13-2-2 during the regular season]."
Except that Washington lost Games 3 (4-3 after Tampa Bay was given a rare 5-on-3 power play in overtime) and 4 (3-1 in part because of a shorthanded goal) at home. The Caps are 2-9 in their last 11 playoff games at MCI Center, 7-12 overall in postseason on F Street.
"We've played well, but maybe we need to be better to beat this team the way things are going," Cassidy said. "A little more second effort, a little more desperation and we're right there. We showed resiliency coming back three times in Game 3. We showed resiliency coming back [Friday] night on the road. We came back in the second period in Game 4. The guys are hanging in there and sticking with the program, but once we come back, we can't seem to do what it takes to get over the top to get the next [goal]. We need to play with the lead."
Washington, which never trailed in outscoring Tampa Bay 9-3 in Games 1 and 2, hasn't led since and has been outscored 9-5. Caps leading scorer Jaromir Jagr said it seemed the Lightning blocked as many shots in their 2-1 victory in Game5 as Khabibulin made saves.
"We're a lot like Tampa was after [losing the first two games at home]," Cassidy said. "We need something good to happen to our club early."
As in a break such as the four-minute power play that the Lightning received 11:13 into Game 5 when Caps goalie Olie Kolzig inadvertently hit Tampa Bay captain Vincent Lecavalier in the face with his stick. Vaclav Prospal gave the Lightning a 1-0 lead 2:39 into the man-advantage.
"We've had some calls go against us," said Cassidy, also referring to Game 3, the first playoff game in 70 years won with a team down two skaters in overtime. "[Friday] it got taken out of our hands again. That's what's so frustrating. We're playing great. We're following our script to a 'T'. We've given them one scoring chance on a turnover, and now we're in the box for four minutes on a [bad] call. There's 46 minutes to get back into it, but when the first goal has won [every game], that's a factor.
"Let's let the players decide who makes their own breaks. You hope your big-play guys can make that break for you."
No one makes more big plays than Jagr, who tormented the Caps for so many springs while playing for the Penguins.
"Confidence is everything," said Jagr, whose team-high seven points in the series are one less than the total scored by Lightning leader Martin St.Louis. "Every little play you make, you start feeling better about yourself and you start playing a little better. I still believe we can win the series. Whoever makes less mistakes is going to win."
History says that won't be the Caps.

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