- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 4, 2011

TAMPA, Fla. | Alex Ovechkin stood in one corner of the Washington Capitals’ dressing room with a nasty cut on the bridge of his nose. Brooks Laich stood in another with a dozen stitches running across his chin. Later, Mike Knuble came in and talked about how “emotional” the previous 24 hours had been.

“You have a chance to win two [back-to-back games] and get back in the series,” he said, “and all of a sudden” … your season is over.

Being swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning took quite a toll on the Capitals – physical, psychological and organizational, too, no doubt. In the bowels of St. Pete Times Forum, the players tried to explain what had happened in their Six Days From Hell – four straight Lightning victories, each more incomprehensible than the last – but it was like trying to explain a tsunami.

“I don’t think any of us saw this coming,” Knuble said after Tampa Bay moved on to the Eastern Conference finals Wednesday night with a 5-3 win.

Not after the way the Caps, reconstituted as a defensive juggernaut, ended the regular season on a 16-3-1 tear and earned the first seed in the East. They won one close game after another during this stretch, five straight by a single goal in late February and early March. It was startling to see them, after years of running and gunning, thrive in such tight situations – and it was more of the same in the first round of the playoffs against the New York Rangers, who they eliminated in five games with a succession of narrow victories (2-1, 2-0, 4-3, 3-1).

But all that ended, with shocking suddenness, when they crossed paths with Tampa Bay.  In the Lightning, the Capitals ran up against a team that was better at winning close games than they were. This was essentially a one-goal-game series, and the Bolts prevailed in the first three by scores of 4-2 (with an empty-netter), 3-2 (in overtime) and 4-3.

In the finale, Tampa Bay’s Marc-Andre Bergeron made it academic 5:07 into the third period with a blast from just inside the blue line. The Bolts were on the power play at the time; in fact, it was the third straight power play the Caps had handed them after narrowing the gap to 3-2 on John Erskine’s unassisted score late in the second period.

That was kind of how the series went for the Capitals. They just couldn’t sustain anything for very long – and kept doing self-destructive things like taking needless penalties. The frustration of finding their match in the Lightning just seemed to get the best of them.

“We got away with taking a few too many penalties in the first round because the Rangers didn’t have as good a power play,” Laich said. “But these guys really made us pay.”

“These guys” included standbys Vinny Lecavalier (three goals, four assists) and Martin St. Louis (two goals, three assists), but also the unsung Sean Bergenheim, who scored in three of the four games and had two goals in the clincher.

“This was the first time in a while we’d played a team that had three lines that really came at you,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “And they never quit, and they’re a great skating club. The Rangers work really hard, but they just don’t have players like that.”

So now we head into another summer of discontent for the Caps. All kinds of decisions loom for owner Ted Leonsis and general manager George McPhee. After this latest disaster, will Boudreau remain the coach? Will there be a roster shakeup – and if so, how large?

Obviously, you don’t want to overreact, and Leonsis is hardly the scorched-earth type. But you do want to react – in some constructive fashion. Not going deeper in the playoffs is a “huge failure” for the franchise (to borrow the words Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher used before the series). The Capitals have been the first seed in the East two years running, and they haven’t done much with it. Getting in touch with their defensive side was supposed to make them more formidable in the postseason, but the Lightning put the lie to that.

“Will there be changes? Of course,” Knuble said. “There’ll be different faces next year. That’s a guarantee.”

One of the Capitals’ continuing problems in the series was that they kept having to play from behind. And they did again Wednesday night when – for the fourth time in four games – they gave up the first goal, Ryan Malone’s tap-in of a Lecavalier pass on the power play.

The Lightning had the man advantage because Ovechkin had brutalized Adam Hall against the boards and drawn a charging call. It wasn’t good timing by the Caps’ captain. His teammates had just finished killing another penalty (assessed when Knuble interfered with opposing goalie Dwayne Roloson).

But Ovechkin helped get the goal back on Washington’s own power play late in the period. With Mattias Ohlund off for roughing up Michal Neuvirth, Ovie let a slapper go from straightaway, and Marco Sturm scored on the rebound to tie it at 1.

So there were some early signs of encouragement for the Capitals. They were throwing their bodies around and playing free and easy, almost with a “How much worse can it get?” attitude. Earlier in the day, Karl Alzner had said, “We haven’t had a good first period yet – one that we’re happy with, at least.” This was as close as they got.

But Tampa Bay had an answer – and often a fairly quick one – to everything the Caps did in this series. The question wasn’t so much if the Lightning would respond, but when. Their reply, as it turned out, came 6:11 later. Bergenheim, outbattling Sean Collins in the crease, got two rebound chances and scored on the second to give the home team the lead back, 2-1.

So it went for the Capitals the entire series. Tampa Bay never let them get any momentum for long. The Caps had one three-goal breakthrough in the second period of Game 3, but the Lightning scored twice in 24 seconds early in the third to set things straight.

And when the Capitals seemed to sag after Bergenheim’s goal Wednesday night, the Lightning went right for the jugular. Or rather, Bergenheim did, flicking the puck in the net after Neuvirth stopped Dominic Moore’s initial shot.

“We lapsed at certain times in every game,” Jason Arnott said, “and that cost us. Just little gaps in 60 minutes of hockey – like not being disciplined enough to stay out of the penalty box. We talked about avoiding those gaps, but we didn’t. And [the Lightning] would take advantage of those five, six minutes.

“You need to play 60 minutes every single night or you’re not going to win much. Hopefully, these guys will take that experience and have a horrible summer and come back hungry next year.”

In the end, Game 4 was like the three that preceded it. Tampa Bay was just a little bit better, a little bit smarter, a little bit clutch-er. The Capitals had plenty of fight, make no mistake; the Lightning simply had more – and that’s not good. After all, it was the Bolts who were coming off a draining seven-game series against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Round 1; the Caps, after dispensing with the Rangers, got to put their skates up for five days.

Did they lose their edge in that time? That’s something that will be debated long into the postseason, along with (among other things): What happened to Nicklas Backstrom down the stretch of the regular season and in the playoffs (two assists in nine games)? Will the Real Nicky be back next year?

It was no way for their season to end, being swept by a team that finished below them in the Southeast Division standings. But these are the Capitals. This is what they do.

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