For the first time in their NHL Eastern Conference semifinal series, the Washington Capitals entered the third period with a lead. A one-goal cushion that would force the Tampa Bay Lightning to take risks and stray from its smothering defense.
But then it evaporated as Steven Stamkos and Ryan Malone scored 24 seconds apart, and that 4-3 edge stood as the Lightning went up three games to none in the best-of-seven series. The top-seeded Capitals, who have yet to advance past the second round of the playoffs under coach Bruce Boudreau, now face elimination Wednesday in Game 4 at St. Pete Times Forum.
"It's not over. We're not going to give up. We're going to win," Alex Ovechkin said. "We have to defend our lead and play our game but we didn't. I think when we get the puck deep only one guy was chasing. We tried to play too safe. We didn't play our way at all."
After playing one of their best periods of the series in the middle stanza, the Capitals looked strangely flat in a critical closing frame, mustering only two shots on Dwayne Roloson (29 saves) in the first 13 minutes as the Lightning found its offense.
Stamkos picked off Eric Fehr's clearing attempt, skated to the high slot and wristed a shot high stick side against Capitals goalie Michal Neuvirth (26 saves) that sent the water bottle flying. It tied the game at three, 5 minutes 23 seconds into the period.
"It wasn't a defensive lapse at all," Boudreau said. "It was a bad clearing by Eric Fehr, and it went right to their player that gave it to Stamkos, who has a great shot."
On the next shift, Nate Thompson sneaked into the Capitals' zone and sent the puck toward the crease where Malone was barreling into John Carlson and Neuvirth. The puck went off Malone's skate and in the net for the go-ahead goa. The tally was reviewed but stood.
"They're uncanny when they want to get a goal," said Mike Knuble, who scored the Capitals' first goal of the game. "It's like they just snap their fingers, hit a button, they just dial it up. . . . You're upset because you're giving them chances, keep letting them come back, letting them come back and you're not going to win doing that."
Those two goals robbed the Capitals of any control they had only six minutes earlier and played directly to Tampa Bay's strength. With the lead reclaimed, the Lightning was content to rely on its 1-3-1 system to create a quagmire of neutral zone pressure. It enveloped the Capitals, who turned the puck over repeatedly and only gave the Lightning more scoring chances.
For Washington, trying to come back yet again and trying to take a lead for the third time in the contest was an exercise in frustration. But if the Capitals had been better able to protect the earlier advantages, players said, they might not have been in that situation late in the game.
"We get up and I think we think it's over and guys just relax a little bit," Jason Arnott said. "It seems like we have a lapse during the game . . . and they capitalize on it."
Less than eight minutes into the game, the Capitals appeared to trump two of their larger demons in the series with one shot. Knuble slipped the puck past Roloson on the power play that would have given Washington its first opening-period goal of the series, but the tally was immediately washed out by the referees because the Capitals had too many men on the ice.
Then it was the Lightning's turn to seize the momentum. A shift riddled with small mistakes by Washington in its own end resulted in a 2-on-1 for Tampa Bay. Sean Bergenhiem shot between Neuvirth's legs to give the Lightning a 1-0 lead just more than 11 minutes in.
When the Capitals came out for the start of the second, though, Ovechkin raced into the offensive zone on a breakaway on his first shift. Roloson turned away the initial shot but didn't cover the puck and Knuble was able to lift it above the sprawling netminder to tie the game at 1 less than a minute into the period.
The goal offered rejuvenation for the Capitals, who would take a 2-1 lead just under eight minutes into the middle period when Carlson beat Roloson through traffic. It would be a short-lived advantage as Vincent Lecavalier scored on the doorstep to knot the score at 2.
Washington did finally get a goal on the power play. Ovechkin scored on a 5-on-3, ending a streak of tries without a goal at 14 to give the Capitals a 3-2 lead, but that, too, would slip away.
"It is another learning experience for us, backs against the wall, and we've got nothing to lose now," Arnott said. "We've got to win tomorrow."