Two quick third-period strikes by the Lightning put them up 3-0 in series
Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nate Thompson (44) leaps in the air in front of Washington Capitals’ centre Nicklas Backstrom (19) after Tampa Bay’s Ryan Malone scored what proved to be the game-winning goal in the third period of Game 3 of their second-round NHL Cup playoff series in Tampa, Fla., on Tuesday. The Lightning won the game 4-3 and lead the best-of-seven series 3-0. — Photo by The Associated Press
TAMPA, Fa. — This is a crackup. This is a cave-in. These are the Washington Capitals, beset by bad luck real or imagined, by core players who are prone to finding a way to falter, by another playoff season that is slipping away.
This is a crackup, and the best team in the Eastern Conference during the NHL’s regular season can’t find asylum anywhere.
“It’s not over,” said Capitals star Alexander Ovechkin, whose two-point game Tuesday was not enough after his team blew a third-period lead to fall 4-3 to the Tampa Bay Lightning, who lead their best-of-seven conference semifinal 3-0.
“They win three, we can win three . . . We won’t give up. We’re going to win.”
Perhaps he is right, but only three teams in NHL history have ever managed to climb out of a three-game hole to win a series.
Washington was the better team for long stretches Tuesday, and after Ovechkin seized control of the game late in the second period — drawing a penalty on a breakaway, then scoring on a 5-on-3 power play for a 3-2 lead — the Capitals weren’t completely in control, but they weren’t hurtling off the cliff, either.
Until suddenly, they were.
First, a turnover by Capitals forward Eric Fehr allowed Lightning sniper Steven Stamkos to unleash that armour-piercing shot of his from the slot, and he beat goalie Michael Neuvirth to tie the game with 14:37 left.
Then, 24 seconds later, the Lightning were attacking again, and a pass across the goalmouth ricocheted off the legs of Lightning forward Ryan Malone and into the net. Malone had collided with Capitals defenceman John Carlson, who slid into Neuvirth. No penalty was called.
The Capitals then disintegrated, going almost 13 minutes without a shot while being outshot 15-5 in the period. That was their season, right there.
“I’m not surprised with what I saw from Tampa,” Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said.
“I’m surprised that some of our guys, we panicked a little.”
Vincent Lecavalier and Sean Bergenheim also scored for the fifth-seeded Lightning, which hasn’t lost since falling into a 3-1 hole against Pittsburgh in the first round.
“It’s not over.” Alexander Ovechkin
St. John’s native Teddy Purcell assisted on Lecavalier’s goal, giving Purcell nine points (a goal and eight assists) in these playoffs.
Knuble appeared to score the game’s first goal on a first-period power play, but it was waved off. Linemate Brooks Laich was playing the point and had been hit in the mouth — he required 10 or 12 stitches, according to Boudreau — and skated to the bench with a mouth full of blood.
Two Caps jumped on to replace him. As Boudreau put it, “(Alex) Semin went on and Carlson went on. Carlson was supposed to go on.”
It was hockey’s equivalent of a clown car.
Boudreau complained the puck was in the net before the too-many-men call was made.
Boudreau also stated flatly that Malone’s winning goal should not have counted, due to interference.
Adding to his troubles, Boudreau said defenceman Mike Green was limited to 13:24 of playing time with a lower-body injury.
At this point, whether Washington’s coach is right or not, his team sounded a little like they were looking out for a plague of locusts next.
“They got lucky again,” said Neuvirth, who stopped 26 of 30 shots. “I think they’re getting every bounce.”
Before the game, Lightning assistant coach Wayne Fleming endured an eight-hour surgery to remove a brain tumour at UC Irvine Douglas Hospital in California. Fleming sent players text messages after each of the first two games — “I think he texted every guy on the team,” said Stamkos — with advice.
At this point, it’s the other guys could use wise counsel.
Just after Tampa’s third-period surge, the team announced Fleming was alert and talking — Fleming’s son Jarrett said his father escaped the possibility of paralysis, but was unable to say much more than “I love you.”