“It was a bad change,” Coach Bruce Boudreau, on the fatal line change in overtime.
When Alex Ovechkin scored at 18:52 of the third period to tie the game at two goals apiece and to force overtime, the Verizon Center erupted to the extent it has not since Sergei Fedorov's goal to beat the New York Rangers in the seventh game of the Caps first round series in 2009.
Six minutes and nineteen seconds of hockey time later, you could hear a pin drop.
Vincent Lecavalier took advantage of a mistimed and poorly managed line shift, got behind the defense, and almost effortlessly roofed a beautiful backhanded pass from Teddy Purcell -- for his second goal of the game -- past the outstretched Michal Neuvirth, sending this series back to Tampa with his Lightning leading the series two games to none.
This game goes into the books as a 3-2 overtime loss for the Washington Capitals, and though all the principals said the "right things" in the locker room and at the press conferences after the game, it was a momentum shift of the highest order, placing all of the pressure of this series squarely on the shoulders of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and all of their teammates.
It was not supposed to be this way. The Lightning, deep offensively, determined defensively, and possessing a goalie that has had the Caps number in games past, entered this series victors of seven excruciating games against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Capitals had a week off to rest and rehabilitate, having dispatched the Rangers in five games.
To complicate matters for the Bolts, they lost two of their key players, savvy playoff veteran Simon Gagne and rugged defenseman Pavel Kubina, in Game One of this series to injury. Tampa was supposed to be tired, now injured, and according to their coach, Guy Boucher, simply outmanned.
Boucher, who holds master's degree in sports psychology, has been pumping the Caps up every time he stands in front of a microphone these days, and poor-mouthing his charges, explaining in his deep, french-tinged accent that his players are tired, hurt, and just not as good as the Caps.
"Oh yeah, we need rest. Rest is a weapon." Boucher said when asked if Tampa's first series in now taking its toll in this series. "It's been very, very tough for us, I'll be honest. I don't think we could have gone on another period."
I'm sure Caps fans will cry him a river right now.
When asked how his team's penalty kill owned the Capitals, shutting them out on six chances (11 total for the two games) and 11:32 of extra-man time, he stated, with a straight face, "I think the goaltender, and luck, had a lot to do with it today."
The Capitals futility on the power play is obviously under a microscope, as it has been all season. But their struggles there are the same in general for this team on offense right now: too many people are trying to create, to make a play, instead of playing simple, straightforward hockey. Dump the puck. Go to the goal. Crash the net. There's a reason people have played hockey in that manner for 100 years.
"We're trying," Boudreau said with exasperation when asked to pin-point the Capitals struggles on the power play. “We’re trying different things. We’re trying to make things work. Obviously it’s not. It's not like they're bad penalty killers, they stopped 35 out of 36 in Pittsburgh. We’ve just got to keep going at it.”
Plenty of people are describing Tampa's second goal as "lucky", in that a crossing pass deflected off Mike Green's skate past his unsuspecting goalie. But that's how goals are scored, by putting the puck in the crease or low slot. The Capitals know this. Bruce Boudreau preaches it. The players practice it. And when they play that way, they succeed.
Both of Washington's goals came with a player in the crease. First Brooks Laich did some hard work in front of the net off a shot from Nicklas Backstrom. And the team captain got an unbelievably good pass from Jason Arnott in the trapezoid with 1:08 left in the game.
Yet on the power play, the Caps are content to skate and carry the puck, instead of using short, quick passes to lure the defense out of a comfort zone. They shoot, but all too often from the point, where the shot is easier to block or knock down, then cleared to the safe end of the ice. Too many players are trying to create instead of simply getting the puck to the net. This is what Boudreau and Ovechkin refer to being "cute" on offense.
It's anything but.
Coaches, players and fans alike are frustrated, but Ovechkin reasoned in comments after the game. "We don't have the kind of traffic like we did against the Rangers. And we didn't find rebounds. We just have to go to the net and find the puck."
Yet, despite the trouble with the power play, the Capitals fairly controlled five-on-five play, outshooting the Lightning 37 to 23. But a puck off a skate here, a bad line change there, and the Caps find themselves in a 0-2 hole.
In playoff games, the smallest weaknesses are exploited and taken advantage of. Receiving six power plays by the 11 minute mark of the second period, as the Caps did last night, was a gift from the hockey gods. And they simply did not -- could not -- take advantage of those gifts. And it now makes the rest of their quest that much more difficult.
These Caps have pulled off the feat before, in the aforementioned Rangers series in 2009. They lost the first two games at home and won four of the next five games, culminating in Fedorov's winner. They'll now have to pull that trick out of their hat again if they are to advance to the Conference Finals in 2011.