WASHINGTON, D.C. -- If anyone thinks the Washington Capitals are just a couple of lucky bounces away from getting back into this Eastern Conference semifinals series against the Tampa Bay Lightning, they are sadly mistaken.
And if the Capitals think that, they are truly cooked.
The Capitals outplayed, outchanced and outshot an injury-depleted Lightning team Sunday night and still found a way to lose 3-2 after Vincent Lecavalier converted on a two-on-one created by a ghastly Washington line change 6:19 into overtime.
The victory gave the Lightning a 2-0 series lead with Games 3 and 4 set for Tuesday and Wednesday in Tampa.
If you accept that winning defines character, then Sunday's victory illustrates a significant gap that has opened up between the Lightning and Capitals.
"I can sit here and you can evaluate and say there was bad bounces in both games and that, but I mean they came in here and they did the job," Washington coach Bruce Boudreau said of the Lightning. "We've got to push harder. They're playing a very disciplined game right now and they're getting most mileage out of all of their players. And they believe. They've won five in a row and they're a difficult team to play against. So we've just got to find a way."
This looked like a night when the stars would align for the Capitals in their bid to knot this series after dropping a 4-2 decision in Game 1. Veteran winger Mike Knuble and defenseman John Carlson returned the lineup, while the Lightning, still weary from their seven-game first-round series against Pittsburgh, were without regulars Pavel Kubina and Simon Gagne, both of whom were injured in Game 1.
The Capitals took it to the Lightning in the first period, dominating time of possession and forcing three penalties. But the Caps came up empty on the power play (as they would all night) and the Lightning scored a late power-play goal for the second straight game -- a rocket by Lecavalier -- to take a 1-0 lead.
The Caps dominated the second period, as well. They outshot Tampa Bay 16-3, but came up empty on three more power-play opportunities and are now 0-for-11 in the series.
Washington did manage to tie the score after a turnover by Martin St. Louis, but it was St. Louis who scored in the third period to atone for the mistake to give the Lightning a 2-1 lead.
"Yeah, I didn't like that shift," Tampa coach Guy Boucher said of the play that led to Brooks Laich's tying goal.
But he said his players knew they had made a mistake and felt badly about it.
"These guys, they're so honest. They're so dedicated that we didn't have to say anything to them," Boucher said. "They knew and they felt guilty, so I'm not surprised that Vinny went and got [that one] and Marty scored that one in the third. Our top guys, they're character guys and I have a lot of respect for them."
By the time the third period rolled around, the Lightning showed some pushback, allowing just five shots and taking the lead after St. Louis' centering pass bounced off defenseman Mike Green's skate and into the Caps' goal. It was the second straight game in which the Caps managed just five shots in the final period. One of those five Washington shots did manage to find the back of the net; Alex Ovechkin tied the score with netminder Michal Neuvirth on the bench for the extra attacker.
The Capitals buzzed in the opening minutes of overtime and forced netminder Dwayne Roloson into a number of difficult saves (he stopped 35 of 37 on the night), and it looked like it would simply be a matter of time before the Capitals tied the series.
"I thought we had the momentum, quite frankly, for about 45 minutes of that game," Boudreau said. "But I felt very comfortable going into overtime."
But then, the Caps got caught on a bad line change. Tampa defenseman Randy Jones, who was in the lineup for Kubina, sent a long pass to Teddy Purcell to set up a 2-on-1 with Lecavalier who made no mistake from in close on Neuvirth.
"It was a bad change and, at the same time, the guys that were coming on didn't come anywhere near as quick as they should have, but it was a combination," Boudreau said.
Scott Hannan, one of the defensemen who was heading to the bench, took responsibility.
"I was a little tired, and I thought I could get off in time, and I couldn't," he said. "It was a bad play. It's frustrating. It just shows, in the playoffs, you make mistakes and it'll cost you. I'll take the blame for that. I should have stayed on the ice, and it probably would have been a dead play, maybe a two-on-two."
These Stanley Cup playoffs have become a nightly exercise in revealing the fine line between success and failure, winning and losing.
The Tampa Bay Lightning have put on a clinic in staying on the right side of that line for five straight games now. They are 4-1 on the road after Sunday's gutsy victory.
Have they been lucky? Sure. But they could have wilted when they were being badly outplayed through the first two periods. They didn't. They could have wilted when Ovechkin tied the game. But they didn't. They could have wilted when the Caps came charging out in overtime. But they didn't.
They found the way that has thus far eluded the Capitals.
"For a goal to go in the last minute, it's always a little hard, but we did a good job regrouping," said Ryan Malone, who picked up an assist on the Lightning's opening goal. "We were disappointed in the second period, the way that we played, because we did get away from our game. We realized that and I thought in the third we played a much better period and got back to our game. That's what we're about. We're worried about ourselves and not what the other team's doing."
If winning does define character, then the Lightning are chock full of it.
The Capitals? The jury is still out, although they're getting ready to convict unless Washington can somehow manage to convert on the power play and take advantage of their superior skill and an opponent that is beat up and weary.
They have yet to do that.
The next three days will go a long way in defining just what this Capitals team is made of.
"The series is not over," Ovechkin said. "We're going there and we're going to win two games and it's going to be hard, but right now, in this situation, we have to win."
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.