Say it isn't so. Could this be one more of those impossibly frustrating turn of events that spells disaster for the Washington Capitals in the playoffs?
Who would have thought, way back when the Capitals relied almost solely on defense, that Hall of Famer Rod Langway would have been knocked out of a playoff series with New Jersey on a freak injury, with the rest of the Capitals soon to join him in the offseason? What of that puck that dropped almost from the ceiling of USAir Arena onto Mike Ridley's helmet and moments later into the Capitals' goal for the game-loser? How did Rick Tocchet, then with Philadelphia, beat the Capitals with a shot from behind the goal line? What to make of those two four-overtime games that the Capitals lost? And now this.
Last night at MCI Center, trying to take what would have been an almost insurmountable 3-0 lead in their best-of-seven NHL playoff series with Tampa Bay, the Capitals managed to get themselves penalized twice in overtime. Once -- in an overtime period of a playoff game -- is hard enough to do. But twice? First, Jaromir Jagr was whistled. Then Ken Klee was sent off to mull his sin. I'd call both transgressions venial, but Jagr and Klee were banished nonetheless.
Lightning had struck in a way no one could have expected and, like two bolts from a dark sky, there you had it. It was a five-on-three that would put Tampa Bay back into the series just as soon as Vinny Lecavalier netted what was all but a foregone conclusion, a game-winner for the Lightning.
For two games, the youthful Tampa Bay team had lost its composure. And a couple of times last night the Lightning lost its cool again, slowing its offense.
But unlike Games 1 and 2, it did not entirely erase its hope. The Lightning was a different team from the one the Capitals handled comfortably in two games in Tampa. This version of the Lightning played as its coach, John Tortorella, had predicted: in a relaxed way that had been missing. Tortorella went so far as to say that the pressure actually was on the Capitals, which sounded like words from more renowned spin masters of the nation's capital. Except that he was right about this: The Lightning had a better chance to rebound on the road.
"No pressure of the home crowd," he said before what may prove to be the pivotal Game 3. "No pressure of the home building. No pressure of your parents being there. None of that. We came up here early to get away from all that. We have some things planned."
Tortorella moved little Martin St. Louis to the top line, and he responded with two assists and a third-period goal. The Lightning also clamped down just enough on the Capitals' two big shots, Jagr and Peter Bondra. For three periods, the Lightning engaged Washington in one of the best playoff games seen in these parts. Yes, it was that good for 60 minutes. But then, but then . . . What happened next could only have happened to the Capitals, the Capitals who have known playoff heartbreak. Oh mortal ache, oh higher woe.
This game, it turned out that the far more seasoned team would unravel -- and at the worst possible time, in overtime. Capitals Coach Bruce Cassidy chose his words carefully afterward, but said he didn't "agree" at least with the call against Jagr. He said Jagr's tussle along the boards with Pavel Kubina was "something you see a hundred times a game."
Once more, Jagr took the hit. He actually took a wicked one from Kubina just as he slid a pass to Brendan Witt, who beat Nikolai Khabibulin to tie the game at 3 with only 2 minutes 56 seconds to play. Jagr was slow to get up, and clearly was not thrilled to see Kubina once again in his face in overtime. Still, it was a close call. But when Klee went off, it would be a matter of seconds, not minutes before the end. "Maybe if we had played a little better, we wouldn't have been in that situation," said Capitals captain Steve Konowalchuk.
But as it was, the Capitals missed the chance to win the game that would have all but finished off Tampa Bay. This time it was the Lightning which scored first. "We wanted to make sure we got the first goal and got our confidence going," said Lecavalier. As Tampa Bay's top scoring threat, Lecavalier finally got untracked after being shut out in Games 1 and 2. And with Game 4 scheduled for tonight, the Lightning might well be able to carry over its new-found emotions.
"I was very surprised to get a five-on-three," Lecavalier said.
Now Konowalchuk was talking about the possibility of a long series, when earlier in the evening the series looked as if it might be over in as few as four games. Had the two teams kept playing in Tampa every other day, the Capitals looked as if they could win forever. The best thing that could have happened to the Lightning did. It was able to take to the road, where it could get collected and break its losing routine.
The Lightning had lost four straight before last night, including two to end the regular season. It had lost 11 straight at MCI. All it seemed to have going for it was Washington itself. The Capitals have that playoff history, all too well-known. The Capitals held 2-0 series leads in 1992 and 1996, only to lose both times. They have held 3-1 leads in 1987, 1992 and 1995 and also failed. That is what led Tortorella to say: "This team has had problems closing out series. The pressure is on them."
Could he be right? These strange penalties at such a strange time couldn't demoralize the Caps, could they? This series isn't going to turn out to be another sordid chapter in Capitals playoff history, is it?
Say it isn't so.