Lightning 2, Capitals 1
Reprinted from yesterday's editions
On two occasions Friday night, the Washington Capitals lost their way in the defensive zone. Scrambling to overcome bad passes and blown assignments, they gifted two goals to Tampa Bay, and that was all the Lightning needed for a 2-1 victory at St. Pete Times Forum, snatching their third straight game in this first-round series and putting the Capitals on the verge of elimination Sunday afternoon at MCI Center.
Washington is on the brink of blowing yet another two-game series lead -- the franchise has done so three times since 1992 -- and needs renewed production from its bevy of offensive stars to prolong this series. Coach Bruce Cassidy is also demanding more mental focus after massive breakdowns handed the Lightning both goals, including Martin St. Louis's game-winner with eight minutes to play.
"The message we sent to our players afterward was: 'Whatever [Tampa Bay] created tonight was a product of our bad decisions with the puck,' " Cassidy said. "I thought we played a pretty solid hockey game and we controlled the tempo for the most part. . . . [But] we can't break down. Those are mental mistakes. You can't do that stuff in the playoffs. We have to figure that out in a hurry, because if not for those chances I don't know that [the Lightning] had any on their own."
The defining sequence began in Tampa Bay's zone. Defenseman Brendan Witt procrastinated with the puck at the blueline before shooting. It was blocked and center Vincent Lecavalier raced the other way for the puck. Defenseman Calle Johansson approached Lecavalier in the corner -- he was the only Tampa Bay player in the offensive zone at the time -- but did not eliminate him, and no one picked up Stan Neckar trailing the play.
Neckar collected Lecavalier's pass and sent the puck back across the ice, past Robert Lang's slide and on to St. Louis's stick. Dainius Zubrus could not catch St. Louis, and he nudged the puck into the empty side of the net for his fourth goal of the series, tops on either team.
"I don't know whether someone lost his man or not," Witt said. "A mental mistake ended up costing us."
Again, the Capitals were beaten by Tampa Bay's first line: Lecavalier, St. Louis and Vaclav Prospal have accounted for all nine of the Lightning's goals in its three victories. Tampa Bay has become a textbook one-line team, yet Washington cannot stop it. Meantime, the Capitals' offensive stars, like Jaromir Jagr, Lang and Sergei Gonchar, have fallen silent after Washington exploded for nine goals in the first two games.
"Sometimes, your best players just have to be your best players," Tampa Bay Coach John Tortorella said, summing up the turnaround that has occurred in this series.
The Capitals conceded the opening goal in the first period -- the team to score first has won every game -- and were again furious with the officials. The Lightning's controversial rare five-on-three overtime goal in Game 3 will not be soon forgotten, either.
Goaltender Olaf Kolzig attempted to clear the puck when Lecavalier skated up to him undetected, strode into Kolzig's follow through and began bleeding from his face. Kolzig was handed a four-minute penalty for high sticking, although, as per Rule 61 of the NHL rulebook: "A player is permitted accidental contact on an opponent if the act is committed as a normal windup or follow through of a shooting motion."
"To me, a ref didn't know the rules and that frustrates you," Cassidy said.
Washington did an excellent job killing most of the penalty and Witt had ample time and space to clear the zone again, but opted to fire the puck dangerously close to the center of the ice from deep in the corner. "I thought I had a guy on me and was just trying to get it out as fast as possible," Witt said. Tampa Bay defenseman Dan Boyle prevented the puck from crossing the blueline and the Capitals' problems began.
Boyle dumped the puck to St. Louis and he slid a cross-ice feed to Prospal. Prospal beat Kolzig as the goalie slid to his left about 14 minutes into the game, one of only three shots Tampa Bay managed in the first period.
The Capitals failed to create many chances at even strength and their power play slumped (0 for 4), but they did score once. Tampa Bay center Brad Richards was caught badly out of position, allowing Michael Nylander to cruise in and connect with Jagr's pass in the crease with three minutes left in the second period.
Washington never built off that goal. More mistakes in the third period followed and its season is now dangerously close to another inglorious conclusion.
"I have all the confidence in everybody that we can win two more games," Zubrus said. "But until we play a full 60 minutes -- or longer if we have to -- and play as simple as we can, we're not going to win any hockey games."
NHL playoff schedule and summaries, Page D7