The Lightning won Game 4 in Washington on Thursday night, sending the Eastern Conference finals back to Tampa tied at 2. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)
Columnist

When the Washington Capitals lost Game 4 to Tampa Bay on Thursday night, nobody in the crowd booed. Not a one that I could hear, devastating as that loss was. As they poured up aisles to the exits, Capitals fans wore similar red garb and uniform expressions, too — not resignation, not dejection, not anything really. They didn’t even look upset or displeased. They might as well have been walking out of a revival of “Romeo and Juliet,” where the story ended just as they expected, as it always does: Everybody you love dies.

At this point, why would a Caps fan be mad? Through the eyes of love, maybe the only kind of vision left among them after 33 years of blinding playoff shocks, this may be remembered as the Caps’ most pleasantly surprising season.

Instead, those faces looked like they expected the Lightning to score late, break a tie and take a two-games-to-two “lead” in the Eastern Conference finals.

Can you lead 2-2? Yes, sure, if you’re playing the Caps in the spring. In fact, you can lead 0-2 or 1-3 — even if you don’t know it yet. It’s happened to the Caps 10 times. Now, they’re just trying to roll an 11. After they’ve taken a two-game lead in a series — either 2-0 or 3-1 — the Caps are 13-42. Amazing. As soon as they show they’re roughly as good or better than a foe, they become a .236 team.

Why respond with anger or a face twisted with disgust at the sight of a furious Alex Ovechkin smashing his stick in half on the crossbar of the Washington goal after the Lightning secured the win? In his hands, he held a twig as splintered as his hopes. Why preserve a stick with which you’ve attempted 13 shots but hit the goalie in the gut more often than you’ve come anywhere near the net?

On the elevator to the dressing rooms, Capitals GM Brian MacLellan gestured courteously for someone to go ahead of him. Once inside, he rubbed his hand over his face as if washing off grime, closed his eyes hard and briefly shook his head once. Any thoughts? “They wouldn’t be good ones,” he answered, civilly.

Like their crowd, I not only respect the Caps’ current season but admire it — although with a caveat. Who but the Caps could have an overachieving year yet run the risk of having its last moments feel like utterly characteristic gloom?

Millions of NHL fans believe that, when you win two games on the road against a favored foe, then promptly lose two at home, you are deader than ice shavings in the bowels of an overheated Zamboni.

I still think the Caps can win, putting me in a meager, exclusive and perhaps certifiable aristocracy of the grudgingly optimistic. But I’ll note that, on leaving the Caps’ dressing room after Game 3 (not Game 4), I said, with no pleasure, to a fellow Post reporter: “I can read a [hockey] locker room better than I can analyze a game. They’re going to lose again. It’s written all over them.”

That night, Caps eyes flicked, like patients enduring the pinpricks of laser eye surgery, when asked why they can’t win big home games in the playoffs — this year or almost any year. “Maybe we are a little more relaxed on the road,” said Brooks Orpik. “That is the last piece [of the puzzle] for us,” said Evgeny Kuznetsov.

Minutes later, Barry Trotz, the first D.C. coach in any major pro sport to take a team to its Final Four in 20 years, and the man whose team snapped the Penguins-Sidney Crosby playoff hex this month, said: “Maybe just pretend you are on the road. All the buildings are pretty much the same. They look a lot alike, right?”

Right, Barry.

You’re between a rock and a lightning bolt when you must win two out of three games to play for the Cup and your big edge may be that two are in Tampa.

The third period of Game 4 crystallized all the demons facing the Caps, and their fans, when they are at home. The Caps outplayed the Bolts so one-sidedly that Tampa Bay went 21 minutes without a shot on goal. Gradually, the shot counter on the scoreboard became a kind of blood-pressure gauge.

As the Caps’ shots mounted, while the Bolts’ total barely moved, the tension tightened as D.C. fans recognized the symptoms of Net Shrinkage Syndrome. The harder you try to dart the puck at small holes, the more you miss. The graceful, gifted, artistic, international Caps seldom bring themselves to throw random rubber on net and simply muck for greasy-goal rebounds. Every year, they say they will. They don’t.

Once, when Tampa Bay was not only shorthanded but short of sticks with four defenders and only three twigs, the Caps passed and passed, searching for perfect, but never took a shot for 35 seconds as their power play expired.

“Give Washington credit. They pushed. They pushed. We were holding on,” said Tampa Bay Coach Jon Cooper. “You love the games when you don’t need a goalie because you are playing so well. But when you don’t have your ‘A’ game, you need your goalie to have his ‘A’ game. And [Andrei Vasilevskiy] sure did.”

“Vasilevskiy stood on his head,” said Tom Wilson, Jay Beagle, Kuznetsov and maybe every Cap who was interviewed. Same words. Do they pass out a sheet?

If the Caps were a normal franchise, then this series would be viewed through two roughly equal perspectives. On one hand, the Caps let the Bolts regain home ice and were beaten in Game 4 by a Harvard man, Alex Killorn, scoring a slithering goal, nudged between your goalie’s legs.

On the other, the Caps have clearly outplayed the Bolts in three of the four games. In theory, if you keep playing the same way, why can’t you now win two of three, especially since you love the road?

The Caps may be as resilient, as “different,” this year as Trotz claims. If they ever win a Cup, it will probably be in a season when they exhaust the last wisp of hope from their oldest, most loyal fans, then rise to glory when everyone outside their own room had given up their ghost — like now.

But we reside, for the time being, in harsh reality. On Thursday night, the exiting crowd was densely populated by gentlemen with bald spots and white hair. The bald spots were signs of age. The white hair came courtesy of the Caps.