TAMPA, Fla. -- After four years of missing the playoffs, the Tampa Bay Lightning are on their way to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Sean Bergenheim scored twice and Steve Downie had two assists as the Lightning completed a remarkable four-game sweep of the Washington Capitals with a 5-3 victory in Game 4 before 20,835 rabid fans at the St. Pete Times Forum on Wednesday night.
The Lightning, who have won seven games in a row, will await the winner of the Boston-Philadelphia series. The Bruins are also on the verge of a sweep after beating the Flyers on Wednesday night.
It's the first time the Bolts have reached the conference finals since 2004, when they won the only Stanley Cup in franchise history. Not bad considering Lightning coach Guy Boucher labeled this series as "David against Goliath" prior to the start of Game 1 last Friday.
"I guess we had a pretty big slingshot," Boucher said. "I guess we hit 'em at the right place. You know what? They had a terrific year and they're a terrific team. I think they played hard all year long and I think their coach had them playing on the same page. They deserve a lot of credit for the type of year that they've had."
For Washington, it's another successful regular season followed by an early playoff exit. While the Caps, the top team in the East during the season, weren't blown out in any of these games, their inability to outplay the Lightning in the third periods of these contests resulted in more disappointment – and the first four-game sweep since they were beaten 4-0 by Detroit in the 1998 Stanley Cup Final.
"I don't think we weren't hungry. We were hungry," Caps captain Alex Ovechkin said. "We just didn't win. We want to win. They want to win. Somebody has to lose. We are losing and I don't know what to say right now."
Indeed, frustration is boiling over for the Capitals, who became the first No. 1 seed since the NHL switched its playoff format in 1993-94 to be swept in the first or second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"They just beat us in four straight, so I think they were (the better team)," Washington coach Bruce Boudreau said. "It wasn't by a big margin, but we're still done in four games, so I'd have to say they were better."
Boudreau then gave a bit of advice to whichever team faces the Lightning next.
"Don't underestimate them," he said.
As they’ve done throughout the series, the Lightning jumped on top – forcing the Caps to play from behind once again.
Tampa Bay got on the board when Ryan Malone scored for the second straight night at 12:37 of the opening period. With Ovechkin off for charging, Vincent Lecavalier sent a nice pass to Malone in front of the net, where it hit Michal Neuvirth and then off Malone's left leg before trickling past the goal line. Malone was credited with his third goal of the playoffs.
But the Caps tied the game before the conclusion of the opening period with a power-play goal of their own. With Nate Thompson serving a goalie interference penalty, Jason Arnott fired a wrist shot from the point that Dwayne Roloson was unable to handle cleanly. That allowed Marco Sturm to collect it in the crease, where he poked it home to make it 1-1.
"It's hard to win when you don't get a good start to the game," said Caps forward Brooks Laich, an unrestricted free agent this July. "They scored first in every game this series I believe and I think they're 7-0 when they score first. But we tried and we were there. It's just they managed to get the goals."
Indeed they did, as the Lightning regained the lead 4:41 into the second period on Bergenheim's team-leading sixth goal of the playoffs. With the teams at even strength, Bergenheim -- an unrestricted free agent this summer -- seized control of a loose puck in front of the net from Caps defenseman Sean Collins and roofed a backhander over Neuvirth for a 2-1 lead.
"The first two games we were right there and should have had them, but these two games, I think we played exactly how they wanted us to play," said Caps center Nicklas Backstrom, went the final 17 games dating back to the regular season without a goal. "It looked so easy when they just chipped the puck out of their zone and waited for us to make mistakes."
Bergenheim then put the Bolts up by a pair with his second goal of the night at 12:34 of the second. The speedy Finn, who has been winning battles all over the ice all series long, drove to the net and one-timed Dominic Moore's rebound past Neuvirth to make it 3-1.
"Our line has been playing great," Bergenheim said. "They're doing such a great job. I'm scoring some goals, but it's because of the work that they do and we do as a line. The first one, I had a few rebounds there and I just got it up. The second one was a great play by Dominic. He kept the shot low and it popped right out to me."
John Erskine cut the deficit in half at 13:40. With the crowd still buzzing from Bergenheim's second tally, Erskine let a shot go from along the left-wing boards that managed to squeak past Roloson to make it 3-2. It was Erskine's first goal of the playoffs.
Marc-Andre Bergeron restored Tampa Bay's two-goal lead with a power-play goal 5:07 into the third period. After Sturm was whistled for goalie interference, Bergeron took a pass from Steve Downie and fired a rocket from the point that blazed past Neuvirth as Tampa Bay grabbed a 4-2 lead.
Martin St. Louis hammered the final nail in the Caps' coffin with 3:08 remaining. St. Louis, a Hart Trophy finalist, ripped a wrister from the left circle past Neuvirth for his sixth goal of the postseason.
"It just seemed like they had an answer for everything we threw at them tonight," Caps defenseman Karl Alzner said. "That's the tough part -- to not get rewarded for anything that we threw at them."
John Carlson made it a two-goal game when he beat a screened Roloson at 17:54, but it was too little, too late for the Caps, who are bound to have a very interesting offseason.
"I don't think we miss something," Ovechkin said. "We have unbelievable team, great locker room, great atmosphere … but we just miss one opportunity to win one game and didn't bounce back. Again, it happened and we're going to see what is going to happen.
"This locker room is unbelievable. Everybody supports everybody. I hope this same team is going to be here next year."
Follow Brian Compton on Twitter: @BComptonNHL