TAMPA - It is incredible really to see a team that can be this good in the regular season for so many years, revert to being so dreadful in the playoffs.
Chokers? Underachievers? Lack of heart?
All of those dubious qualities and more are swirling around the Washington Capitals after a 4-3 loss to the Lightning here Monday night has them wobbling towards the playoff ropes yet again.
A pair of goals 24 seconds apart in the third erased the Caps lead and rocked the Lightning to a commanding 3-0 series edge in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semi-final.
And based on the meek effort they put up in the third, by far their far worst period of the series, it’s difficult to imagine the Capitals muscling their way back into it now.
“I wish somebody could tell us exactly what happened (in the third),” Washington defenceman Karl Alzner said in the sombre Caps dressing room. “I don’t know what to say.”
“They are uncanny when they want to get a goal,” added forward Mike Knuble. “It’s just like they snap their fingers or hit a button. You can see it.
It leaves you flabbergasted, I don’t know what to say about it.”
We’ll do it for them.
Despite leading 3-2 entering the third and seemingly with a touch of momentum on their side, the Capitals did the hockey version of waving the white flag after Steven Stamkos tied it with a bullet wrister at 5:23. When Ryan Malone had the game winner bounce off his skate and past Michal Neuvirth moments later, it was as if the Caps bailed.
In the opening 12:30 of the third, they were outshot 13-1 as the Lightning surged. Whether forcing the issue surprised the Caps is hard to say, but they certainly couldn’t compete.
If anyone should have been flying in the final 20 minutes, it was the Capitals who are in danger of meekly exiting the playoffs for a fourth consecutive spring.
“Tonight we didn’t sit back, we weren’t afraid to lose,” said Stamkos, who scored his fourth of the post season. “We were hungry to win, that was the message relayed between the second and third.
“We really went after them. We realized the magnitude of this game.”
In contrast, the concept seems lost on the Capitals. Alex Ovechkin did show up for an impressive second period in which he scored a goal and an assist, but as he has or too often in the series, was at best ineffective and at worst near invisible for long stretches.
The Caps won’t have much time to recover with Game 4 back here at the St. Pete Times Forum on Wednesday night. And if they don’t even manage to take the series back to the U.S. capital, heads will no doubt roll.
The Southeast Division champions for the past four seasons have only won two playoff series in that time, including the first-round decision over the New York Rangers last month.
Caps coach Bruce Boudreau who is sizzling on the hot seat now has a regular-season record of 189-79-39, but in the playoffs has slipped to an alarming 17-19.
The Lightning, meanwhile, are without a doubt the hottest team in hockey, one that has to be seen at least as a contender to win the Cup, if not included among the favourites as the second round rolls on.
Playing without defenceman Pavel Kubina and forward Simon Gagne the last two, they have now won six in a row, including the final three of their seven-game series win over Pittsburgh.
The stars are showing up for the Lightning with both Stamkos and Vinny Lecavalier (three goals and two assists in this period) coming through on Tuesday.
“We had a lot of enthusiasm and not being scared to lose, but hungry to win,” Lightning coach Guy Boucher said.
It’s a hunger that appears to have gone missing for the top seed in the Eastern Conference.