WASHINGTON—Just before the opening faceoff of Game 3 of the NHL’s Eastern Conference finals Tuesday night, a foolhardy Washington Capitals fan bellowed, “Break out the brooms!”
Buoyed by his favorite team’s stunning dominance of the series’ first two games in Tampa, the fellow was obviously feeling his oats. But if anyone should know better than to look too far ahead, it’s the Capitals and their long-suffering supporters.
Tuesday night’s lackluster 4-2 loss to the Lightning only reinforced the reality that nothing is going to come easily for this star-crossed franchise.
Just as severe thunderstorms were moving through the nation’s capital, a Lightning strike wiped out much of the goodwill Washington amassed in Tampa and ensured that this will be a competitive series after all.
“We have to regroup,” Tom Wilson said. “The next game is huge.”
As sharp as they looked in Tampa, the Capitals were inexplicably sloppy in Game 3. Brooks Orpik’s failure to clear the puck allowed the Lightning to score on their first power play of the night. Tampa Bay got another extra-man goal early in the second period, just 16 seconds after Lars Eller was whistled for controlling the puck with his hand.
And Braden Holtby, who had been largely lights-out since regaining his starting goaltender spot in the second game of the playoffs, suffered through arguably his worst night of the postseason.
Holtby’s tripping penalty set up the Lightning’s first goal, and he let in a rare relatively soft goal by Brayden Point late in the second period. That score deflated the crowd after Brett Connolly had given the home team some rare optimism by scoring midway through the period.
If the Capitals have shown anything new during these playoffs, it’s that they no longer succumb immediately to adversity. Now they have to prove that they can handle prosperity.
Exactly one month ago, the Capitals had dropped the first two games of their first-round series to Columbus on home ice and seemed destined for yet another early postseason exit. But they discovered some previously unseen playoff resiliency and ousted both the Blue Jackets and their longtime nemesis, the Pittsburgh Penguins.
And after sweeping Games 1 and 2 in the Sunshine State, they entered Tuesday’s game with a chance to move one win away from only their second Stanley Cup final appearance. Instead, the Lightning made the adjustments, just as Washington did in overcoming deficits in each of the first two rounds.
It’s human nature to let up at least a little after you’ve accomplished a major goal. Ousting the two-time Stanley Cup champion Penguins, who had owned Washington in nine of 10 previous playoff meetings, required much of the Capitals’ energy and grit.
And though they may not admit it, thrashing the Lightning twice on the road may have sent the message that the hardest part of the Cup quest was over.
Tuesday night should have served as Exhibit A that the exact opposite is true. Washington has shown an ability to shift from shaky to sharp from period to period, let alone game to game. Tuesday night represented a step backward.
Now for the good news: The Capitals still have a 2-1 lead. They’re also 7-1 away from Capital One Arena this postseason, and in a series that hasn’t seen the home team prevail yet, they’ve got the visiting ice advantage.
But as Tuesday night proved, they can’t take anything for granted.
“We know exactly what we have to do,” Alexander Ovechkin said. “Nobody said it was gonna be easy.”