By Darren Eliot
May 04, 2011

I don't think any of us saw this coming. Certainly, the Capitals never envisioned being down 3-0 to the Lightning. Yet, that's exactly where they find themselves after a 4-3 loss Tuesday.

The Bolts have the chance to sweep with the scheduling quirk that has the teams playing back-to-back games in Tampa. In other words, this could be over before the Caps even realize what hit them.

Which is, in fact, a Tampa team on a six-game winning streak outplaying the Capitals in every facet. Dwayne Roloson has been much more dependable than rookie Michal Neuvirth. Tampa's big names -- Vinny Lecavalier, Marty St. Louis and Steven Stamkos -- have outperformed Alex Ovechkin, Nik Backstrom and Alexander Semin. Secondary scoring from Ryan Malone, Sean Bergenheim and Steve Downie has far outpaced any offensive output from the Capitals' role players. And finally, the Lightning special teams have outclassed the Caps penalty killing and power play.

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Yes, Ovechkin scored a power-play goal, although it was a 5-on-3 advantage. They finally got a goal from the blueline when John Carlson. Mike Knuble jammed the net for a gritty goal. And Neuvirth made some excellent saves.

All of that, though, was not enough to hold leads of 2-1 and 3-2. The Capitals' sporadic signs of life were not nearly enough compared to the Lightning's consistency. Not that the Capitals didn't want this game, but the Lightning played as if they wanted it more. Their execution was crisper; their will greater. When the Capitals had their upticks, the Lightning quickly brought them down.

It wasn't so much will as it was willingness. The Lightning stayed together as a group throughout the ups and downs, while the Caps were party to it. The Lightning struck twice within 24 seconds early in the third period to surge ahead 4-3. And that's where it would stay throughout.

The Lightning didn't deviate from their game plan, and the Capitals appeared to implode. No sustained pressure, little in the way of chances and a reverting to many old bad habits. Ovechkin refused to pass and continually carried the puck into traffic, and Backstrom stubbornly looked for Ovechkin in every passing situation, eschewing shots even when presented with glorious looks.

Maybe it is human nature to look ragged when you're reeling, and that explains their lack of response to a one-goal deficit in the third period in a game they absolutely had to have. They looked confused, confounded and out of control. As Tampa continued to skate and make it difficult on their opponent, the Caps stopped skating -- looking exhausted at times -- making it easier on the Bolts.

They looked as if they knew losing was imminent. The Lightning responded by playing like winning was possible.

And now the Lightning sit less than 24 hours from completing the impossible: a four-game sweep of the beleaguered Capitals. From what I saw in Game 3, impossible moved to improbable to potentially. It's up to the Capitals now. From where I sit, that might be asking too much at this juncture.

The Caps looked defeated in the third.

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