Lightning sweep underachieving Capitals

Tampa Bay Lightning's Steven Stamkos avoids the check of Washington Capitals' Marco Sturm as Martin...

Tampa Bay Lightning's Steven Stamkos avoids the check of Washington Capitals' Marco Sturm as Martin St. Louis looks on. (REUTERS/Mike Carlson)

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:45 PM ET

TAMPA, Fl. - In the Lightning dressing room, there is a simple yet symbolically significant puzzle of the Stanley Cup.

It stands about knee high with space for 16 pieces - one for each win needed to capture the grand prize. A new one is added to the magnetized board following each victory.

Thanks to a stunning series sweep of the Washington Capitals, that Cup is now half full and making room for more.

On a steamy Wednesday night in Florida, the Lightning finished off the listless, heartless shell of a team that the Caps incredulously and habitually become each April and May.

The scoresheet shows that a 5-3 win was powered by a third-line winger named Sean Bergenheim, who scored a pair of goals and so typifies the hard-working Lightning that now must be considered a serious threat to win the Cup.

But it was much more than that from a team determined to outwork its opponent for rookie NHL Guy Boucher and now advances to the Eastern Conference final for the first time since their lone Cup win in 2004.

It is a team built to succeed immediately by first-year GM Steve Yzerman and refined by Boucher, who was one of his first major hires.

The Lightning have now won seven consecutive games, including three in a row when facing elimination by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round. They had to face a Caps team well-rested after an easy first-round win over the New York Rangers and never flinched.

“That was good for us,” Yzerman said. “We came into (the series) high as a kite.”

You could see the confidence grow by the game as well as a belief that Boucher’s stifling 1-3-1 system is a nice tight fit for playoff hockey.

“Right now we’re playing very well, but there’s no limit to how good we can play,” said Bergenheim, who now has seven goals in the post-season. “We’re not saying we’re on the top of our game yet.”

While the first line through third line were shining for the Lightning, even the top guns were misfiring for the soulless Caps. Alex Ovechkin disappeared for such long stretches, you have to wonder if he has the leadership to take a team anywhere beyond a big regular season.

The other Alex - though would be Semin - also disappeared, as did Nicklas Backstrom who didn’t score once in the playoffs. At their best, the so-called Washington leaders looked interested at their worst incapable of competing with the No. 5 seed that was making its first playoff appearance in four seasons.

“I don’t think any team can win when your star players aren’t getting the points you need them to,” Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. “It very rarely happens. That’s just a fact.”

The fight seemed throttled out of the stunned Capitals in a 4-2 loss the night before, however, and once the Lightning took a two-goal lead in the third to chants of “sweep, sweep, sweep,” ringing through the St. Pete Times Forum, it was pretty clear the comeback wasn’t going to happen.

“We haven’t won the Cup yet,” said Marty St. Louis, who is playing as gamely as he was on that Cup winning team seven years ago. “There’s a lot of will in this room and good character and young guys - similarities to the ‘04 team - but that was a great team and a great run.

“This team has its own identity with a lot of different players. Everyone is playing their role and more.”

While the Lightning have had contributions from big shots such as St. Louis, Steven Stamkos and Vincent Lecavalier, the trio of Bergenheim, Maple Leafs and Canadiens castoff Dominic Moore and Steve Downie has been game-changing.

If there’s a better, harder-working third line in the game, we don’t know where it is.

That hard-work mantra is hammered home by Boucher, who a year ago was coaching the Hamilton Bulldogs of the AHL. Hailed as one of the game’s young, innovative thinkers, the 39-year-old was a hot commodity in the off season and eventually bought Yzerman’s pitch.

So who can stop them now?

“We couldn’t figure it out,” Boudreau said. “But don’t underestimate them. That’s what I would say.”


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