For two periods, it looked like the Washington Capitals were primed to pull themselves back into the Eastern Conference Semi-Final series against their division rival Tampa Bay Lightning.
A three goal second period had taken the starch out of the 20,613 fans sardined into the St. Pete Times Forum and the refs certainly weren't helping, as they seemed to call phantom penalties on the Lightning .
Flying elbows, Bolts players tackled to prevent scoring chances, and a stick to the throat of goaltender Dwayne Roloson went unpunished.
The parade of cheap calls against the Lightning led to a 5-on-3 advantage for the Capitals, who cashed in for their first power play goal of the playoffs—ending a run of 32 consecutive kills for Tampa Bay and giving Washington a 3-2 lead into the second intermission.
The only problem is, the Capitals forgot that hockey is three periods.
Tampa Bay got a lightning bolt from their superstar Steven Stamkos to tie the game at 3, and 24 seconds later, a puck deflected off forward Ryan Malone and into the net to give Tampa Bay a stunning 4-3 advantage.
"We get up, and I think we think it's over and guys just relax a little bit," Washington forward Jason Arnott told the Associated Press, "And then they just come. In the playoffs, you've got to be focused and ready on every shift. If you're not, bad things happen. It's another learning experience for us."
"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," Caps' Mike Knuble added, "You can see, it's like they're flipping a switch. It leaves you flabbergasted. You don't know what to say about it."
The switch flipped on for the Bolts in the third period as they outshot Washington 15-5.
"I think we were waiting for things to happen in the second period, and our focus wasn't right," Lightning coach Guy Boucher told the Associated Press. "We just got back and reloaded and came out the way we're supposed to play. We had a lot of enthusiasm—not being scared to lose but being hungry to win."
Whenever Caps head coach Bruce Boudreau is whining to the press, you know positive things are happening for the good guys.
Boudreau complained irrationally that the final goal shouldn't have counted because Malone "pushed our (Caps) defenseman into our goaltender." Nevermind his hockey team had been doing it to Roloson the entire game or that both players were jostling in front of Neuvirth.
Of course Boudreau may have still been fuming from the bench for the too many men on the ice minor that wiped out the Caps' first goal of the game. He didn't deny it was a penalty—he was just surprised it was called in the playoffs.
The Caps complaints not withstanding, thanks to the thrilling 4-3 come from behind victory, Tampa Bay has the opportunity to end the series tonight at home with a sweep of the top seeded Caps.
Not even the most enthusiastic Lightning fan could have imagined that.
Only three teams in NHL history have come back from a 3-0 deficit, but the last was this past season's Eastern Conference Finals when Philadelphia rallied to beat Boston.
"Boston was up 3-0 (to Philadelphia last year) and they lost, and they were a very good team," Lightning coach Guy Boucher told the St. Pete Times, "so it's going to be very difficult to get that fourth one. It's our job to make sure we're focused and not at all emotional about the end result."
Still, the Lightning—beaten and bruised from their previous physical series with Pittsburgh—want to end Washington as quickly as possible and take advantage of some much needed rest.
"This team (The Capitals) is a good team. It's going to be hard to win four games," Tampa Bay's Martin St. Louis said to the Associated Press, "Obviously we're happy about the result tonight and we just have to reload tomorrow."
To get that fourth win would complete another playoff collapse for their division rivals and give the Bolts a shot at winning their second Eastern Conference title.