- The Washington Times - Monday, April 21, 2003

If you honestly believed the Capitals were going to beat Tampa Bay yesterday, after three straight playoff losses, then you probably also believe in the Easter bunny. History has not been kind to the Caps in these situations, and I won't spoil your breakfast by recounting the gory details. Suffice it to say Jaromir Jagr and Co. were a lot closer to the first tee than they were to a seventh game when they took the ice at MCI Center.
So no one should have been terribly surprised to see Dave Andreychuk spoil Olie Kolzig's shutout with 4:06 left in regulation, sending the teams into overtime tied 1-1. Such things have been happening to the Capitals since the dawn of Abe Pollin. Nor should anyone have been unprepared for what followed: a scoreless first OT, a scoreless second OT and missed chances by the Zamboni load.
To be a Caps fan these past 29 years is to be familiar, all too familiar, with the exquisite agony of the quadruple-overtime loss. The longer the game goes, the tighter the knot in the home crowd's collective stomach, because, well, you know.
First Pat LaFontaine broke their hearts, then Brian Mullen, then Petr Nedved, and yesterday it was Martin St. Louis who sent the Capitals to the pro shop, wheeling around the Washington goal and firing a shot past Kolzig 4:03 into the third OT to win the series for the Lightning. LaFontaine, Mullen, Nedved and St. Louis the Caps now have their own personal Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
And this overtime defeat was as "crazy" Kolzig's word as any of them. This time the Capitals lost after Jason Doig drew a penalty for, of all things, too many men on the ice. Silly man. He should have known that even with an extra skater, the Caps wouldn't have been able to overcome their rotten playoff karma, particularly in OT.
Let the record show that in their last three games against Tampa Bay, the Capitals scored one, one and, uh, one goal. What a bummer for Ted Leonsis, who brought in offensive weapons such as Jagr, Robert Lang, Michael Nylander and Sergei Berezin jacking up the payroll to the fifth-highest in the league to put a more exciting, successful product on the ice. Three goals in three games? Bring back Joe Juneau.
Outside the Caps' locker room, Leonsis was hesitant to say anything in the heat of the moment always a good policy. Better to sleep on it for a night and let the disappointment settle, so to speak. He did offer one brief statement, though, that sounded ominous.
"For the few fans who were here," he began, "they saw a hell of a game."
"It's incredibly disappointing to have 14,000 fans for the last playoff game. I think the market has spoken. We can't have [turnouts like] that with the consumer focus we've had."
Translation: The party if it can be called that is over. The Capitals are going back on a strict budget, and there'll be plenty of new faces next season.
Leonsis looked like he'd swallowed a hockey puck as he made this proclamation and who could blame him? He'd gone the extra mile, if not the extra five miles, for his club and its fans, and all he'd gotten in return was a blown 2-0 series lead and a two-thirds-full house for the last game (admittedly on Easter Sunday).
"It's not fair to the players," McPhee said of all the empty seats.
Well, I don't know about that. Seems to me, after so many playoff disappointments, the Capitals have to win back their fans' enthusiasm. There was certainly nothing in the regular season to suggest that this postseason would go any differently than the ones in '01 and '00, both of which saw the favored Caps get eliminated in the first round. Why, the Caps even finished behind the Lightning in the standings.
"Crazy things happen," Kolzig said of the bizarre finish. "I don't know why. Why haven't the Red Sox won [the World Series] in so many years and so on and so on?… If you look at our payroll, it's easy for you guys to write that we've underachieved, but I don't think that's the case at all. This was our best game of the series, we had a ton of chances, and it just didn't happen."
It hasn't happened very often for this franchise over the years. And since the '98 run to the Stanley Cup Finals, the Capitals haven't won a single series. After his first postseason disappointment three years ago, Leonsis said he didn't want his players to fall victim of a kind of "battered wife's syndrome" and start thinking that bad things were destined to happen to them in the playoffs. But it's hard not to when you've got a history like the Caps'.
And the Tampa Bay series provides more grist for the mill. The Caps lost Game 3 arguably the biggest of the series when the Lightning scored on a rare two-man advantage in overtime. And they lost yesterday, in the third overtime, after getting caught with too many men on the ice. Or, as Kolzig put it, "Again, we got screwed on a call."
And again, they have the entire offseason to feel sorry for themselves while the owner decides how big a sledgehammer he wants to take to the team. Beware of flying debris.

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