The Capitals scored 89 goals in the third period and overtime this season -- sixth-most in the League (significantly better than being 19th in total goals). Their success continued in the opening round against the New York Rangers as they added eight goals after the second intermission.
That is what makes Tampa Bay's ability to dominate Washington in the third period so improbable. The Lightning have outscored the Capitals 5-1 in third periods and overtime in the first three games, and it is the big reason why Tampa Bay possesses a commanding 3-0 lead in this Eastern Conference Semifinal series, and can clinch a spot in the Eastern Conference Final with a win Wednesday in Game 4 (7 p.m. ET, NHLN-US, TSN, RDS).
"It seems to be a point of contention with us right now," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. "Usually in the third period in the year and the years gone by (that is) our best period. And we got outworked in the third period. It's something obviously that's a problem and we have to change it."
"Usually in the third period in the year and the years gone by (that is) our best period. And we got outworked in the third period. It's something obviously that's a problem and we have to change it." -- Bruce Boudreau
That's 15 shots in 60 minutes -- Tampa Bay had 15 in the third period of Game 3 alone. And four of those 15 "shots" for the Caps essentially were dump-ins from the neutral zone during Game 2, when the Capitals were trying to make goaltender Dwayne Roloson play the puck.
Tampa Bay's domination in Game 3 particularly was incredible. Alex Ovechkin had a shot 19 seconds into the period and as he skated by Roloson his stick clipped the Tampa Bay goaltender in the throat. Roloson was down on the ice for about a minute, but remained in the game.
Washington didn't put another shot on Roloson for nearly 13 minutes, as Tampa Bay's defense gave its goaltender a chance to settle down after the injury scare. The Capitals also only had one shot in the final 3:51 despite needing a goal to avoid the 3-0 series deficit.
"As a rule our team doesn't panic," Boudreau said. "As a rule, I think we've won 36 in a row when we've scored three goals or more. So it's more of an anomaly, but when you get into high-pressure situations and emotion comes in and they get that third goal, they were pretty up and we were going, 'Uh-oh.' I think if we were up 2-0 in the series, it probably wouldn't have reacted the way it was. But when you're down, I think it's natural to have a little panic. We don't like it, and hopefully we'll be able to do things to slow the game down a little bit tonight and hopefully it won't happen again."
The problem for Washington is trying to navigate Tampa Bay's 1-3-1 defensive system. The Lightning's philosophy is rooted in letting the opponent make mistakes, frustrating them to the point of unforced errors and then beating them on the counterattack.
While many teams in the NHL deploy some version of a "trap," Tampa Bay’s 1-3-1 is different than the more standard 1-2-2 look. The Lightning also are able to expand and contract how far away from Roloson they want to set up, and when they have a lead the more-compact version is even more difficult to dissect.
"We were able to lean on our systems, and that's a big key for success, too," Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman said. "You have to buy into the system. If you don't, you're going to be in big trouble. That's what we have to do and that's what we've done so far."
Washington also struggled to break down the Montreal Canadiens' defensive structure in the final three games of their playoff series a year ago. The formations are different, but the ability to shield the goaltender from too many quality scoring chances is the same.
Last season the Capitals were able to get loads of shots on Jaroslav Halak, but Montreal's defenders kept the Washington shooters to the perimeter of the offensive zone, and there were few rebounds to be had.
The Lightning have been able to protect Roloson in the third periods and he hasn't even had to face the long shots that Halak easily was able to deflect away last year. If the Capitals don't find a way to solve Tampa Bay's scheme, particularly in the third period, Game 4 could be the final one in what would be a dramatically disappointing season.
"It is just us not doing the little things we need to break that system or play well against that system," Washington defenseman Scott Hannan said. "We have to sit here and focus on the game tonight. We've got a lot we need to do to play better. We know we're right there. It is close. It is a few bounces, but those bounces are going to the team that is working harder, that is driving to the net."