In 24 hours, the Washington Capitals' season could be over because of 24 seconds of Game 3.
That's how long it took for the Tampa Bay Lightning to erase a 3-2 lead the Capitals built through two periods on Tuesday night, scoring two goals and hanging on for a 4-3 win at home.
Early in the third period, Steven Stamkos lost the puck on the entry, and teammate Victor Hedman shot it around the boards. Caps defenseman John Erskine moved it along to the Caps' Scott Hannan, who moved it to forward Eric Fehr, who couldn't clear it past the pinching Hedman. Fehr fell to the ice, Stamkos stole the loose puck and unleashed the kind of top left corner rocket that you'd expect from a former 50-goal scorer.
The game was tied, 3-3, at 5:23.
After the goal, Alex Ovechkin's line was out against Nate Thompson's checking unit. Adam Hall deflected a pass into the Washington zone, as Karl Alzner got caught at the blue line. Thompson won the race for the puck, sent it to the paint and it deflected off of Bolts forward Ryan Malone's back skate as he fought through a John Carlson check.
Video review confirmed it was a stop, not a kick, but Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau felt it should have been goaltender interference. "If you look at it, Malone's driving the net, and he pushes our player into our goaltender, and he can't kick out his right leg to make the save. It's a no goal/no penalty call," he said. "It shouldn't have counted."
Tampa Bay had the lead, 4-3, at 5:47.
For the rest of the period, the Lightning did what they've done through three victories against Washington: Control the final 20 minutes, looking every bit as confident as the Capitals looked rattled.
"We panicked a little bit from behind," said Boudreau. "But that comes when you're down 2-0 in a series."
They're a team that knows how to close, and the Capitals are a team prone to panic and press. This is not a healthy combination for Washington.
In the first two periods of Games 1-3, the Capitals averaged 12.8 shots. In the third, the Lightning have limited them to five shots in each of those games and one goal — Ovechkin's tying tally to force overtime in Game 2.
No such heroics tonight for Ovechkin — who had a goal, an assist and an inspired performance from a guy wearing the 'C' — or any of his teammates. Tampa and Dwayne Roloson shut the door, and moved one win away from their first conference finals appearance since 2004.
The Capitals showed moments of resiliency, overcoming a 1-0 deficit with a dominant second period that included their first power-play goal of the series by Ovechkin on a 5-on-3. Goalie Michal Neuvirth kept them in the game with some acrobatic saves.
But it all goes back to something Vinny Lecavalier, who scored his fifth of the playoffs in Game 3, told us after Game 2: "They seem very determined. They just weren't opportunists."
For all the hype, all the expectations, all the long-term contracts, all the face-time on HBO, all the Winter Classic swag, all the popularity, all the proclamations that this time it'll be different, the Washington Capitals couldn't seize on their opportunities to avoid a 3-0 hole.
Instead, they're one loss away from another semifinal ouster. From a real conversation about their beloved coach's fate. From questions about their heart. From another summer wondering how it all went to hell in the span of 24 seconds.
"It's not over," said Ovechkin after Game 3. "We're not going to give up and we're going to win."