Poll: Why are the Caps crumbling?

The Tampa Bay Lightning deserve tons of credit during their six-game winning streak, but surely some criticism must be heaped on the Washington Capitals. Have your say on the biggest reason for Washington's massive deficit.
Tampa Bay forward Ryan Malone celebrates his third-period goal against the Washington Capitals on Tuesday night. (Chris O'Meara/Associated Press)

Two weeks ago, the Tampa Bay Lightning were facing a daunting deficit and a potentially quick exit from their first playoff appearance in four years.

Six consecutive victories later, they're on the brink of the Eastern Conference finals.

The Lightning look to complete a stunning sweep of the top-seeded Washington Capitals as the Southeast Division rivals meet in Tampa on Wednesday night.

Pittsburgh jumped out to a 3-1 lead on Tampa Bay in the first round, but the Lightning outscored the Penguins 13-4 while winning the next three — including a 1-0 Game 7 victory anchored by Dwayne Roloson's 36 saves.

The Lightning can eliminate Washington with far less drama, although none of the first three games have been lopsided. Tampa Bay needed an empty-netter to seal a 4-2 win in Game 1, and Vincent Lecavalier's overtime goal gave them a second road victory.

First-year coach Guy Boucher's team trailed entering the third period of Tuesday's Game 3 at home, but goals from Steven Stamkos and Ryan Malone 24 seconds apart delivered a 4-3 win and left Washington veteran Mike Knuble impressed.

"They're 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," Knuble said. "You can see it's like they're flipping a switch. ... It leaves you flabbergasted. You don't know what to say about it."

Lecavalier and Sean Bergenheim also scored for Tampa Bay, with each getting his fifth goal of the playoffs to match Martin St. Louis for the team high.

The Lightning's winning streak, which equals their longest from the regular season, has the Capitals seemingly headed toward another post-season flameout.

Washington has won the Southeast each of the last four seasons, claiming the East's top seed in the last two, but it has won only two playoff series since reaching the 1998 Stanley Cup finals.

Detroit hoisted the Cup that year with four straight victories. That's the last time the Caps were swept in the playoffs.

"It's not over," Washington star Alex Ovechkin said. "They win three. We can win three."

The Capitals can draw inspiration from a couple of recent examples. Chicago trailed Vancouver 3-0 in the first round this year but forced Game 7 before falling in overtime.

Philadelphia erased a three-game deficit and beat Boston in the East semifinals last season, becoming the third team in NHL history to turn the trick.

Boucher is hoping his club can guard against a similar meltdown.

"Our players have really learned over this year to want more all the time," Boucher said. "There was a one-minute celebration [Tuesday] and that was it, because there's nothing done.

"Last year, Boston was up 3-0 and they lost. And they were a very good team. It's going to be very difficult to get that fourth one."

It will be harder if the Capitals can fire up a stagnant power play. Ovechkin scored on a 5-on-3 advantage Tuesday, but that is Washington's only goal in 16 power plays in the series.

Improved goaltending would also help. Michal Neuvirth has allowed at least three goals in five of the last six games, giving up 10 on 76 shots for a .868 save percentage against Tampa Bay.

Washington may have to face elimination with a weakened back line. Defenceman Mike Green didn't play most of the third period of Game 3 due to a lower-body injury.

Tampa Bay continues to play without injured regulars Simon Gagne and Pavel Kubina, but could have extra motivation. Assistant coach Wayne Fleming was alert and talking Tuesday after having surgery to remove a brain tumor.

"Any positive note on Wayne is big for us," Boucher said.