With the Stanley Cup Finals just about a month away, the Tampa Bay Lightning are looking more like heavy favorites rather than the postseason’s latest underdog team relishing the role of a spoiler.
Sean Bergenheim scored twice and Steve Downie, Dominic Moore and Teddy Purcell each had two assists as the Bolts completed a remarkable four-game sweep of the top-seeded Washington Capitals with a 5-3 victory in front of a raucous sellout crowd of 20,835 at the St. Pete Times Forum on Wednesday night.
Tampa Bay, winners of seven straight, are headed to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since the 2004 postseason and must await the winner of the Boston-Philadelphia series. The Bruins are also on the verge of completing a sweep following a 5-1 win over the Flyers on Wednesday night as well.
“You work hard all year at getting all your players on the same page,” Lightning head coach Guy Boucher said. “I think everybody on our team showed a little bit of leadership and now everyone wants to do more.”
The Capitals, which enjoyed another successful regular season marked by a number-one seed and 107 points, will now endure another long spring. The loss marked Washington’s latest disappointment since being knocked out in seven games last season by the Montreal Canadiens in the first round.
While the Capitals were able to stay with Tampa Bay in each of the four games, including forcing overtime in Game 2 at the Verizon Center, the team’s inability to outplay the Lightning in the late stages ultimately proved to be the difference. Wednesday’s defeat was just the first four-game sweep since they were beaten 4-0 by the Detroit Red Wings in the 1998 Stanley Cup Final.
“Were they the better team? They just beat us in four straight so I think they were,” Washington head coach Bruce Boudreau said. “It wasn’t by a big margin, but we were still done in four games.”
Ryan Malone’s power-play goal at 12:37 gave Tampa Bay an early 1-0 lead. Vincent Lecavalier fed a pass across the crease to Malone, stationed alongside the net, who got a piece of it with his skate to beat Michal Neuvirth for the game’s first goal.
Neuvirth finished the night with 32 saves, but was outplayed for much of the series, including Wednesday night, by Lightning net minder Dwayne Roloson.
Roloson, acquired on Jan. 1 in a trade with the New York Islanders, entered the contest ranked first in saves, goals-against average and save percentage and showed why with another 33-save effort in Game 4.
“He’s been great for us,” Malone said. “We try to limit the shots he sees and help out around the net, but so far, so good.”
Marco Sturm, John Erskine and John Carlson each had goals for Washington, who with 36 shots on goal to Tampa Bay’s 37, was outshot for the first time in the series. For Tampa Bay, it was the first game of 11 thus far in the postseason in which it has outshot its opponent. The Lightning also improved to 7-0-0 in the postseason when scoring first.
That held up Wednesday night, even after Sturm was credited with the tying-goal in the closing minutes of the first after the puck was batted up in the air and directed in with the back of Roloson’s skate towards the near post to make it 1-1.
The killer combination of Bergenheim, Moore and Downie continued to be the catalyst for the Lightning in the series, as the linemates hooked up for consecutive scores in the second period to put Tampa Bay up 3-1.
Bergenheim’s team-leading sixth of the postseason regained the Lightning lead at 4:41 after he put back a rebound attempt from the slot, and his second of the night nearly eight minutes later gave Tampa Bay a two-goal advantage.
“This is the first team we’ve played in a while that has three lines that really come at you,” Boudreau added. “It’s their so-called third line. I think Downie has 12 points in the postseason, Moore and Bergenheim have at least six goals, so that’s pretty good for a third line.”
The Lightning appeared to be in control following Bergenheim’s second tally, but a deflection from along the side boards by Washington’s John Erskine found its way into the back of the net just 1:06 later to cut the deficit back to one.
Washington’s penalty troubles began to take a toll though midway through the second. With Sturm in the box as a result of a goaltender interference call, Marc-Andre Bergeron’s slapper from the point while on the power play gave Tampa Bay a two-goal advantage with just under 15 minutes to play.
Martin St. Louis and Carlson exchanged a pair of goals late in the game, which brought the score to 5-3, but Washington’s final goal of the game at 17:54 also turned out to be its last of the season.
“We didn’t want to feel surprised to be in this position,” St. Louis said after completing the four-game sweep. “We were up in the series and we were going to try and stay up and win the next one, and the next one, and the next one. We were just going out there and giving ourselves the best chance to win a game.”
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