The series began slipping away from the Washington Capitals the moment Jaromir Jagr was penalized for roughing in overtime of Game 3. Less than a minute later Ken Klee joined him in the penalty box, Tampa Bay quickly scored on the five-on-three power play and went on to win three more times to take the first-round series in six games.
The Lightning also scored the series-clinching goal Sunday afternoon on a power play -- this time in the third overtime session -- leaving the Capitals to work through another April of bitter disappointment. Washington dominated the opening two games in Florida but, after failing to put away Tampa Bay in the third game, allowed its young opponent to gain confidence and momentum.
"We had two overtime games," Coach Bruce Cassidy said, "and a game [in Tampa] that's a one-goal game where they scored in the third [Game 5]. The only game we weren't great in was Game 4, when we ran out of gas, but we were right there, too. It was 1-1 and a guy falls down at the blueline and they capitalize. Every game had a story where it's not so much what they did, it's what we did almost. We gave them the opportunities; we opened the door for them and Martin St. Louis's line kicked it down every time we made a mistake or gave them an opportunity."
The Capitals had no answer for the line of St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier and Vaclav Prospal, which combined for 10 of their team's 11 goals in its four straight wins, amassing 17 points in those games despite being shadowed by Washington's best defensive players -- Jeff Halpern, Steve Konowalchuk, Mike Grier, Calle Johansson and Brendan Witt -- for almost all of the series. St. Louis scored three straight game-winning goals to close the series while Washington's primary offensive cogs, save for Peter Bondra, did not produce in the final four games of the series, when the team scored a total of six goals.
Officiating clearly played a role in creating chances for the Lightning, but Tampa Bay managed to capitalize while the Capitals' power play -- featuring more abundant individual talent -- finished the series in a 2-for-18 rut and went 1 for 7 Sunday.
"We didn't get all the calls," Halpern said, "but the players ultimately decide the series."
The controversial call on Jagr swung the series for good. The Capitals, older and slower than Tampa Bay, faced a tough task in shrugging off the Game 3 loss and playing again the following night. They were a bit flat but tied at 1 late in the second period of Game 4 when Kip Miller, playing an unfamiliar spot on the power play, fell down, leading to a two-on-one short-handed goal for the Lightning that was the game-winner.
"We got screwed [in Game 3]," goalie Olaf Kolzig said. "Any time something like that happens in overtime, then one team is sky high and the other team is low. Then you play back-to-back nights [and] the odds aren't very good for the team that lost the night before."
The Lightning scored the always-vital first goal in Game 5 when Kolzig was issued a four-minute high-sticking penalty, although the accidental play should have been overlooked by the officials as explained in the rulebook. Tampa Bay won that game, 2-1, with mistakes by Witt weighing heavily, and the Capitals simply could not beat goalie Nikolai Khabibulin in Game 6, when he stopped 60 shots.
Defenseman Jason Doig's haste to play the puck when leaping over the boards in triple overtime led to a too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty, and St. Louis clinched it for Tampa Bay when he spun away from Doig to score the series-winning goal.
Washington has not won a playoff series since 1998 and has not won as many as three games in any of its last four playoff series. The club has a 5-12 playoff record since Ted Leonsis purchased it in 1999 and lost a two-game lead in a playoff series for the fourth time since 1992.
"The one thing about our group is we're not quitters," Leonsis said. "So you can sit around and moan and whine, but I'm already thinking about what I have to do to improve the team or change the chemistry to get us to where we can punch through [to the second round], because we just seem incapable of doing that."