After all of the previous postseason disappointments, this spring was supposed to be the one that ended differently for the Washington Capitals. Wednesday night, though, there would be no furious comeback, no heroics from the star-studded lineup to match the Tampa Bay Lightning's killer instinct. There would be no win in the second round, either.
The Lightning captured a 5-3 win in Game 4 at the St.Pete Times Forum to complete a tidy four-game sweep of the Capitals in the Eastern Conference semifinals that took all of six days.
It was the second consecutive postseason in which the Capitals exited the Stanley Cup playoffs prematurely and unexpectedly. But this latest defeat comes after Washington showed signs of having turned a corner by dispatching the New York Rangers in five games in the first round.
"You always think when you win in five games, you have a good chance and after first loss we was not upset enough," Alex Ovechkin said. "After second [loss], after third we was ready to go, but again something been wrong and we don't win the game."
The Capitals have never advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs in the four postseason trips during coach Bruce Boudreau's tenure, during which they are 17-20 in the postseason, or since 1998, when they went on to play, and lose, in the Stanley Cup Finals to Detroit. That final series against the Red Wings was also the last time Washington was swept in a playoff round.
This rapid exit only leads to more questions about what is missing from the Capitals' makeup to succeed in the playoffs after finishing the regular season as the top team in the East for a second consecutive year. After a year of waiting for redemption for the shocking loss to the Montreal Canadiens in seven games in 2010, it's still unclear whether the Capitals have become any more adept at handling staunch playoff pressure.
"It just [stinks] to finish this way," rookie defenseman John Carlson said. "Because we were good enough to do special things."
After the loss to the Canadiens, Washington's front-office brass, headed by general manager George McPhee, decided to keep most of the team intact, but with another long summer beginning today, the players accept that there will likely be alterations to the team.
"I think that's a real knee-jerk and George isn't like that," veteran Mike Knuble said when asked whether he expected changes. "Will there be changes? Of course there's going to be and who knows what it is going to be, probably rightfully so."
When Tampa Bay continued to push in every game, Washington couldn't counter the performance of both opposing star players and grinders. In Game 4 it was one of the latter, role-player Sean Bergenheim, who jumped to the fore and recorded two goals, including the game-winner, to knock the Capitals onto their heels as Dwayne Roloson made 33 saves.
It wasn't until a tally by Martin St. Louis made the margin 5-2 with 3 minutes, 8 seconds remaining in regulation, though, that Boudreau wasn't sure if his team would be able to come back.
"When they made this 5-2, I thought OK, this is going to be tough," said Boudreau, whose job security has been questioned since the possibility of being swept started to become real. "Even before then I thought we're going to find a way. They want it too much and they've come back all year in dire straits, and I still thought we were going to tie it up."
While the Lightning received contributions up and down their lineup on the scoreboard, Ovechkin and John Carlson were the only Capitals to score two goals in the series. Ovechkin was the only player with more than three points (four), and from the start of the matchup the Lightning looked like the more balanced, energized team.
Despite Tampa Bay having only 24 hours between its win over the Pittsburgh Penguins in seven games and the semifinal series against Washington, which had five days off between rounds, the Lightning pounced on its Southeast Division rival.
"I thought we played well, but I think throughout the whole series they were the hungrier team," veteran Matt Bradley said. "They did little things to win the games and they won all of them."