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Lightning-Capitals: Washington forces Game 7 with 3-0 victory

WASHINGTON — The Lightning let one get away Monday night. And it might cost Tampa Bay a chance at the Stanley Cup.

So now there will be a Game 7 to decide the Eastern Conference. Maybe this is how it should be. Maybe this is how it's supposed to be.

Either way, it's how it WILL be.

Game 7.

Get ready, Tampa Bay, because it's coming. Wednesday night at Amalie Arena. One game to decide which team goes to the Stanley Cup final.

The Lightning and the Capitals. If you think you know who is going to win, you're crazy. No one knows what will happen because nothing in this series has made sense.

But there's no question which team has the momentum and it isn't the Lightning. If Tampa Bay doesn't get its act together and soon, you can forget a Stanley Cup. If we learned anything from Washington's season-saving 3-0 victory Monday night, it's that the Lightning had better raise its desperation level.

"We were no good," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "We didn't play with the near desperation that they did. Was it a fairly even game? There's no question."

Yeah, the score was close for most of the night. Then Cooper pointed out the number of hits in the game: Washington 39, Tampa Bay 19.

"Somebody was engaged, and somebody wasn't," Cooper said. "And that's a choice. You can spin this any way you want."

That's true. On one hand, the Lightning has a Game 7 at home after overcoming a 2-0 deficit in the series. The fact that it still has a chance — and a good one seeing how it is at home — is the positive spin.

Or …

"Or you can say they blew a big opportunity to close this series out," Cooper said of his team.

And that's the bad news.

The Lightning had a chance to wrap up this wild and intense series full of momentum shifts against the Capitals on Monday night in Washington. But the Caps responded with a gut-check performance that, frankly, few thought they had in them. A team known more for throwing up than showing up when the postseason gets serious, the Caps won one of the biggest games in franchise history.

They won it because they played better. And, according to the Lightning, wanted it more.

The Caps also have left the Lightning full of doubt. The Lightning look like a fragile team heading into its biggest game since it lost Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final two years ago.

It hasn't scored a goal in more than 99 minutes, going all the way back to Ryan Callahan's goal 33 seconds into the second period of Game 5. It had some decent looks in Game 6, but hardly any second chances and you never had the sense that Tampa Bay was really going to win Game 6. The best it could do was hang around and hope to catch a break that never came.

Now give the Caps credit. They played hard. They played well. Forward Devante Smith-Pelly said, "We played pretty much the perfect game."

But clearly, the Caps were on a mission that the Lightning wasn't on.

"They were the more desperate team," Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. "They played extremely hard with their back against the wall. They played like it could be their last game and we played like it might be our last game or it might not be. The desperation level needs to be higher, obviously, if we expect to win the series."

You also have to wonder if the Lightning can rebound, not only emotionally from losing a Game 6, but physically. The Caps, led by captain Alex Ovechkin, were absolute beasts Monday night, throwing heavy checks all over the ice. It was by far the most physical game of the series with Washington doing most of the hitting.

Here's something else to consider and isn't good if you're a Lightning. The Caps, overall, have been better in the series. They were way better in their three victories than the Lightning was in its three victories.

Game 6 was another example of that. The Caps could have won 6-0. It was only 3-0 because, once again, Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy was outstanding. T.J. Oshie had a second-period goal on the power play. Smith-Pelly sealed the game midway through the third, and Oshie added an empty-netter in the final minute.

The one positive, the only thing the Lightning hung its helmet on Monday night, was that it will have another chance to win the series and it will get that chance at home. The Lightning will look forward to Game 7 because it can't afford to look back at Game 6. As Lightning forward Ryan Callahan said, the Lightning better have a short memory so it can move on.

"You enjoy it," Callahan said about playing in a Game 7. "You don't want to be in this situation. We wish we would have wrapped it up tonight. But at the end of the day, Game 7s are fun. You enjoy it."

Sure, you enjoy it if you give yourself a chance to win, something the Lightning did not do in Game 6.

"We have to find a way to match (them)," Stamkos said. "We worked so hard all year to get this opportunity to play in front of our fans so we expect a much better effort next game."

It better or it will be the last game of the Lightning season.