"We had a lot of enthusiasm and not being scared to lose, but being hungry to win." Lightning coach Guy Boucher
Tampa, FL -- Every Washington Capitals player that faced the media said the same thing in the locker room following Tuesday night's 4-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, putting them in a no games to three hole: "We have to be ready [in Game Four]." The unasked question? Why weren't they for Game Three?
The Caps surrendered leads of 2-1 and 3-2, and completely collapsed in the third period -- again -- en route to Tampa taking an almost impossible lead in this best of seven series. Only three teams in the modern era have ever come back from being down 0-3 to win the series.
You have to give the Lightning credit. They created a tremendous forecheck, forcing turnover after turnover, leading to a couple easy goals. But more often than not, it was the Caps shooting themselves in the foot. They had a goal disallowed because of another botched line change that led to a too-many-men penalty. They managed just five shots on goal in the third period, a frame that saw Tampa take 15 shots on Michal Neuvirth. And twice they had defensemen block their own goalie, preventing a save on a shot.
There were several damning post-game quotes, so let's start with the one that came from one of the few men in the room that has been on a Cup winner, Mike Knuble. Referring to the Lightning, he said, "They're uncanny when they want to get a goal. They just snap their fingers, hit a button and dial it up. You can see it's like they flipped a switch. I don't know what it is. It leaves you flabbergasted." Hmm, sounds like how the "old" Capitals used to be described.
Nick Backstrom, who did not register a shot on goal and was just 39 percent in the dot, was asked why the Caps couldn't match Tampa's intensity. "I don't know. I think we played pretty good until the third period, when we had everything in our own hands and then we just gave it away."
Karl Alzner was asked the same thing. "It's tough to say. I don't know exactly, I can't put my finger on it. I thought we were playing good but just started to get a little too complacent. We just took our foot off the gas for a little bit." Why would the Caps let up with a one-goal lead? "I don't really know. I wish I knew. I just don't know what to say."
Jason Arnott echoed Alzner's thoughts, "We get up for a certain amount of time and I think that our guys think the game is over."
Flabbergasted. Gave it away. I don't know.
These were the responses the Capitals players came up with to describe how Tampa Bay dominated them in the third period. They all talked about not giving up, taking it one game at a time, getting back in this series, winning Game Four and taking it back to the Verizon Center for Game Five.
But unless someone can come up with how to do so before 7:00 pm Wednesday night, the result might not be any different. The Caps -- to a man -- don't have any answers for it. What causes this team to simply stop doing the things they've done to secure the lead in the first place?
Maybe the Lightning are just a better team. Maybe they are just better prepared. Maybe the Caps lack something intangible in the collection of players and coaches they've assembled. Maybe they have several players that just aren't committed enough to be in the right place at the right time. Maybe some of the younger players they have relied on so heavily this season have just hit the wall.
Maybe none of that is true. But what is true is that the Washington Capitals are now up against an historical challenge in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. All the expectations this team, this organziation, have placed upon themselves are in danger of going down the drain once again.
Maybe it goes back to the quote at the top from Boucher, the man with the master's in sports psychology. "Not being scared to lose, but being hungry to win." Perhaps the burden of all the expectations are just too much to bear for the men assembled. But it was obvious watching in the third period. The Caps were playing not to lose, not playing to win.
Instead, they turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy.