Capitals melt when game heats up

TAMPA, Fla. -- The theory was that as this series went along, the battle-weary Tampa Bay Lightning would lose their legs and the Washington Capitals' superior talent would win the day.

Instead, it is the Lightning who seem to be getting stronger with every shift, and the Capitals are slowly disintegrating before our eyes.

The Capitals allowed two Tampa goals 24 seconds apart in the third period Tuesday night to turn a one-goal lead into a one-goal deficit as the Lightning went on to win 4-3.

Tampa now shockingly leads this Eastern Conference semifinal series 3-0 and can put away the conference's best regular-season team Wednesday night.

"I wasn't surprised by what I saw from Tampa. I was surprised that some of our guys, you know, we panicked a little bit from behind. I think that comes when you're down 2-0 in the series and you're pushing and they're coming on pretty hard. They played a great third period," Washington coach Bruce Boudreau said.

After turning in a dynamic second period to take a 3-2 lead, the Capitals collapsed in the final frame. And for the third straight game, Washington managed just five shots on goal in the third period.

Washington had just one shot on goal through almost 13 minutes to open the third period as the Lightning crushed the Caps' spirit with goals by Steven Stamkos and Ryan Malone 24 seconds apart.

"I mean, away game and a 3-2 lead and then I don't know what happened really there," said Washington center Nicklas Backstrom, who was again held off the score sheet.

Backstrom, like many of his teammates, was at a loss to explain how they could have come up so lame during the most important period of hockey in the team's season.

"I mean, I don't know. I thought we played pretty good until the third period. We had everything in our hands, and then we just gave it away," Backstrom said.

"We get up and I think we think it's over," Jason Arnott added.

"Guys just relax a little bit and they [Tampa] just come. In the playoffs, you've got to be focused and ready on every shift. If you're not, bad things happen. It is another learning experience for us, backs against the wall and we've got nothing to lose now," Arnott said.

Team captain Alex Ovechkin will be a lightning rod for criticism after this game even though in the second frame he had perhaps his best period of playoff hockey since the Caps' classic second-round series against Pittsburgh in 2009.

Ovechkin had a goal and an assist, but he was a nonfactor in the first and third periods when the Caps needed him to be at his best.

As he has for most of this series, Ovechkin moved only in a straight line, declining for the most part to think pass.

Nothing epitomized Ovechkin's frustration more than his final rush. He tried to burst through a phalanx of Tampa defenders and sent his teammates offside and forced a faceoff at center ice with 13 seconds left. Talk about going out with a whimper.

"It is not over. We won't give up. We're going to win," Ovechkin insisted defiantly, a new set of stitches prominent across the bridge of his nose.

Of course, the Caps' captain also boldly predicted Monday that the Caps would win both ends of this back-to-back set in Tampa.

Ovechkin's determination to make things happen himself might be due to the fact that his linemate Backstrom continued his grisly playoff year with another forgettable night. Backstrom, who has not scored in 16 games and has just two assists in eight postseason games this spring, has been tentative with the puck and is a major cause of the Capitals' ongoing power-play woes.

The Caps were 1-for-5 with the man advantage in Game 3, scoring their first power-play goal of the series on a second-period 5-on-3. They appeared to score a power-play goal in the first period, but it was waved off when the Caps were whistled for too many men on the ice.

"We just gave them lifelines," said Mike Knuble, who scored Washington's first goal 59 seconds into the second period to tie the game at 1.

"They are uncanny. When they want to get a goal, it's like they just snap their fingers or hit a button. They just dial it up. You can see it. It's like they flip a switch. When they are down, it's just like they think, 'we know we are going to score.' I don't know what it is, it leaves you flabbergasted," a disconsolate Knuble said.

And there you have it.

Two seemingly evenly matched teams with a giant gap in the "getting it done" category.

During the regular season, the Caps were 41-0-3 in games in which they scored three or more goals. Now they face the ignominy of being swept out of the second round of the playoffs after being manhandled in the third period of each of the first three games of this series.

Certainly there is plenty of blame to go around the Caps' locker room, just as there is plenty of praise to go around the Lightning room.

The Arnott honeymoon, for instance, is long over. The subject of much adoration from the media early in Washington's first-round series against the Rangers, Arnott now has gone six games without a goal, and he and linemate Alexander Semin were nonfactors in Game 3.

Arnott's play in this series reminds us of why the Nashville Predators were so happy to see him depart at the end of last season.

Semin, meanwhile, managed to single-handedly squander a late power-play opportunity by first hammering the puck about three miles over the net and out of the offensive zone, but then whiffing completely on another one-timer.

With the Washington net empty and the Caps looking for the equalizer late in the third, Semin shot weakly into a crowd to help quash any chance of a comeback. It also was Semin who jumped onto the ice to cause the Caps' too-many-men penalty in the first period, which negated what would have been the first goal of the game.

There were other mistakes, too.

Eric Fehr spit up the puck in the Caps' zone, which led to Stamkos' goal early in the third period.

Jeff Schultz allowed Vincent Lecavalier to stand unmolested in front of netminder Michal Neuvirth when the Lightning tied the game at 2 just past the midway point of the second period.

"Tonight we didn't sit back," Stamkos said.

"We weren't afraid to lose; we were hungry to win. That was the message relayed between the second and third. We really went after them. We realized the magnitude of this game. If they win, they are right back in this series," Stamkos added.

In less than 24 hours, the Lightning get a chance to send a similar message and end the Capitals' season on a sour note once again.

The Caps, meanwhile, will be looking to at least not fade completely from view.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.