WASHINGTON - While Washington Capitals goalie Olie Kolzig sat at his locker last night, his head buried in his hands, his teammates quietly shed their uniforms and headed for the showers.
It not only meant the loss of the game, but also elimination from the best-of-seven series, 4-2. A crushing blow to the offense-rich team that had been up 2-0 in the series, and looked ready to quickly knock out the Lightning.
But in a game in which they had done exactly what they wanted, they could not force a Game 7.
"You can look at it, and if you want to you can say we underachieved," said Kolzig, who made 44 saves. "You can look at our payroll and see the talent we have. But I don't think that was the case at all.
"We played hard and Nikolai Khabibulin [60 saves] stole the game for them. It just didn't happen for us."
Peter Bondra scored the first goal on a power play, ending the team's 0-for-13 run with the man advantage, and gave the Caps a 1-0 lead.
Until yesterday, the team that scored first had won each game in the series.
Washington got marvelous goaltending from Kolzig, who made a handful of awe-inspiring saves the Capitals could have used as a springboard for victory.
And with their own top offensive line of Jaromir Jagr, Michael Nylander and Dainius Zubrus playing against Tampa Bay's best offensive line. The Caps contained Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier and Vaclav Prospal, who had scored the team's last nine goals, for not one or even three periods, but five.
But with 3:45 gone in the third overtime, Capitals defenseman Jason Doig, who had played well all night, leaped onto the ice in a hurry to take his position. But Doig touched the puck before a teammate was able to leave the ice and the Capitals were called for a bench penalty: too many men on the ice.
"It just happened," Doig said. "The puck bounced right to me and the linesman called it. I wasn't expecting the puck to come right away. I just want to jump to get a head start. We'd been doing it all season."
The Capitals have known heartbreak in their playoff history. They are now 14-17 in overtime playoff games, including 1-5 in their past six.
This was the longest overtime for the Caps since a 4-3 loss in 2001 at Pittsburgh. In that one, the heartbreak came when a puck flew into the net off the skate of Caps defenseman Calle Johansson.
So it wasn't too much of a surprise when an open St. Louis got the puck and fired the game-winner past Kolzig at 4:03 to set off a wild team celebration. It was St. Louis' fifth goal of the series.
The playoff series victory is the first in Tampa Bay's history.
"For Tampa Bay it has been a long time coming," said Lightning coach John Tortorella, whose team will face the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference semifinals. "The Tampa Bay Lightning has been disrespected forever by everyone.
"But we can't complain or ask for sympathy any more than the Capitals can for their history. We made our bed. For us, that meant we had to find a way to gain respect. No one feels sorry for anyone in this league.
"I know how hard we've worked. I know how hard the Capitals [management and players] have worked. They've got quality people. But we found a way to win."
Last night, it was Tampa Bay's veteran captain Dave Andreychuk, who got off a beauty of a shot that tied the game, 1-1, on the power play with 4:06 left in the third period that turned the game in the Lightning's favor.
But what turned the series in Tampa Bay's favor was a 5-on-3 power play in overtime of Game 3. The Lightning, down 2-0 in the series, scored the second 5-on-3 overtime power-play goal in more than 80 years of Stanley Cup playoff history and the first in 70 years.
"We sort of found a way to beat ourselves," Capitals coach Bruce Cassidy said. "Our guys played their hearts out. But we made mistakes. This series should have been over in five games."
NOTE: Team owner Ted Leonsis was frustrated after the game. He said "every pivotal game was in the hands of the refs." He also was critical of the arena management group for its treatment of the Capitals organization, forcing the team into playing consecutive days at MCI Center in games 3 and 4.
And he voiced disappointment in attendance saying he felt the community had voiced its lack of interest and that he would have some "real evaluating to do" in terms of his investment and commitment.
Yesterday's loss was the third-longest game in Capitals' history. A look at the top three, all Washington losses, with the amount of overtime played and the scorer of the winning goal:
4/18/87...N.Y. Islanders...3-2...68:47...Pat LaFontaine
4/20/03...Tampa Bay...2-1...44:03...Martin St. Louis
Tampa Bay 0 0 1 0 0 1 - 2
Washington 0 1 0 0 0 0 - 1
First period - None. Penalties - Kubina, TB (tripping), 8:13; Taylor, TB (cross-checking), 10:43; Ciernik, Was (holding stick), 13:56; Lecavalier, TB (hooking), 15:08.
Second period - 1, Washington, Bondra 4 (Gonchar, Halpern), 17:34 (pp). Penalties - Ciernik, Was (hooking), 13:48; Clymer, TB (roughing), 16:50; Andreychuk, TB (slashing), 18:27; Cullimore, TB (unsportsmanlike conduct), 18:27; Zubrus, Was (slashing), 18:27; Lang, Was (unsportsmanlike conduct), 18:27; Doig, Was (hooking), 19:46.
Third period - 2, Tampa Bay, Andreychuk 2 (Richards, Boyle), 15:54 (pp). Penalties - Boyle, TB (roughing), 4:06; Andreychuk, TB (high-sticking), 10:44; Prospal, TB (tripping), 13:26; Ciernik, Was (closing hand on puck), 13:26; Gonchar, Was (interference), 15:21.
First overtime-None. Penalties - Klee, Was (holding), 15:56; Sarich, TB (holding), 19:05.
Second overtime-None. Penalties - Andreychuk, TB (high-sticking), 8:58; Konwalchuk, Was (interference), 8:58.
Third overtime-3, Tampa Bay, St. Louis 5 (Lecavalier, Prospal), 4:03 (pp). Penalty-Washington bench, served by Nylander (too many men), 3:45.
Shots on goal - Tampa Bay 5-10-6-14-7-4-46. Washington 13-11-12-11-14-0-61. Power-play opportunities - Tampa Bay 2 of 6; Washington 1 of 7. Goalies - Tampa Bay, Khabibulin 4-2 (61 shots-60 saves). Washington, Kolzig 2-4 (46-44). A - 15,269 (18,277). T - 4:19.