Sunday, May 1, 2011, 9:58 p.m.
Updated at 12:11 a.m.
CAPS PLAYOFF PAGE CAPITALS PAGE CAPITALS VIDEO
By Mark Zuckerman
The Capitals overhauled their system in January, emphasizing defense over offense, because they believed this was their best chance for success come playoff-time.
In principle, it makes perfect sense, and the system worked to near-perfection during the Caps' first-round dispatching of the Rangers. The danger, though, of this style of hockey, is that it turns every game into a nip-and-tuck, low-scoring battle in which one unlucky break can lead to disastrous results.
Or, even worse, two unlucky breaks, as the Capitals found out Sunday night while dropping a heartbreaking, 3-2 overtime contest to the Lightning to fall two games behind in this Eastern Conference semifinal series.
First came a fluky third-period goal in which Mike Green inadvertently kicked the puck into his own net to put Tampa Bay up 2-1. The Caps somehow managed to overcome that one, tying the game with 1:07 to play in regulation on Alex Ovechkin's goal and forcing overtime.
But they couldn't overcome the second bad break, with came six minutes into the extra period. A broken stick forced defenseman Karl Alzner to the bench and forced Scott Hannan to take his place. On the ice for only about 30 seconds, Hannan then skated back to the Caps' bench to make a line change, just as the Lightning rushed in the other direction.
By the time the replacement line made it onto the ice, it was too late. Randy Jones, seeing all kinds of open space in front of him, launched the puck down the length of the surface. Teddy Purcell corralled the puck and fed it to Vincent LeCavalier, who was uncovered in front of the net. LeCavalier steadied the puck on his stick and beat goalie Michal Neuvirth from point-blank range to win the game, silence the Verizon Center crowd and send the Lightning home with a commanding 2-0 series lead.
"It's frustrating," Hannan said. "It goes to show you: In the playoffs, you make mistakes and they're going to cost you. And it did tonight. I'll take blame for that. I should have stayed on the ice, and it would have been a dead play, probably."
Hannan took the blame for leaving the ice, but coach Bruce Boudreau also pointed the finger at those Caps players who were trying to replace their departing teammates, including defenseman Jeff Schultz.
"It was a bad change," Boudreau said. "And at the same time, the guys that were coming on didn't come nearly as quick as they should have."
Before the mad finish, it appeared the Lightning would win this one 2-1 thanks to a deflection off Green's skate midway through the third period. Green inadvertently redirected Martin St. Louis' intended pass across the crease into the back of the net with 12:25 to play.
It was the third times in seven playoff games a Caps player has tipped a shot past Neuvirth, the second time in this series.
"Yeah, they get a break," winger Brooks Laich said. "But you know what? You do the right things to get breaks. He puts the puck at the net, and a tough one off Mike's skate. Whatever, those things happen. That doesn't deter a team. Bad breaks happen. You live with it and move on."
Stymied all night on the power play -- they went 0-for-6 in Game 2 after going 0-for-5 in Game 1 -- the Capitals managed to send this one to overtime on Ovechkin's even-strength goal with only 1:07 remaining in regulation.
That huge swing in momentum, not to mention Tampa Bay's fatigue after playing four games in six days over two rounds, figured to play in the Caps' favor heading into overtime.
"I think we all felt pretty excited about that," Alzner said. "We've been in a situation like that before, and we've won a few overtime games. So we knew this was kind of our time."
Some three hours earlier, this game opened with a shake-up of lines by Boudreau following a lackluster performance in Game 1. Slumping Nicklas Backstrom was dropped to second-line center, with third-liner Marcus Johansson bumped all the way up to the top line alongside Ovechkin and Mike Knuble.
Boudreau also hoped Knuble's return -- he missed three games with an apparent hand injury -- would inject some life into the Capitals from an offensive standpoint.
In one regard, all of the changes did make a difference. The Caps controlled the flow of this game from the moment the puck dropped and dominated offensive possession. They took 10 of the night's first 12 shots and after two periods had out-shot Tampa Bay by a staggering 27-9 margin.
But the disparity in scoring chances didn't translate into a disparity in actual scores. Despite a boatload of power-play opportunities -- six in the first two periods -- the Capitals simply could not convert.
"We're trying," Boudreau said of the struggling power play. "We're trying different things. We're trying to make things work. Obviously it's not."
The Lightning had plenty of its own power plays, four of them in the first two periods. And the visitors managed to make good on one of them when LeCavalier fired a shot from the right circle past Neuvirth's left shoulder late in the first period to put Tampa Bay up 1-0.
Though they were continually denied by Dwayne Roloson, the Caps never stopped pressuring the 41-year-old goalie, figuring something would eventually have to slip by him. It finally happened with 5:08 to play in the second period when Laich picked up a rebound off a missed Backstrom shot and put it in the net to tie the game 1-1 and re-energize the crowd.
By night's end, that same crowd was left wondering, incredibly, whether they'll even get another chance to see their team play at home again this season.
"It's 2-0. Big deal," Laich said. "There's still a lot of hockey left. We are by no means out of this."
Contact Mark Zuckerman at email@example.com and on Twitter @MarkZuckerman.