After last season's first-round defeat at the hands of Montreal, Washington coach Bruce Boudreau changed his Capitals from an offensive powerhouse into a defensive juggernaut with the hopes of going deeper into the playoffs.
They did, by one round.
Sean Bergenheim scored two goals and Dwayne Roloson stopped 33 shots, helping the streaking Lightning complete a series sweep of the top-seeded Capitals with a 5-3 victory in Game 4 on Wednesday night.
For superstar Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals it was yet another bitter post-season disappointment, especially how well the team responded in the regular season when Boudreau implemented a tough defensive system on the high-flying team. The Capitals' penalty kill, a paltry 25th in the league last season, rose to No. 2 in 2010-11.
Ultimately it didn't matter. Rookie Michal Neuvirth stopped 32 shots for Washington, but Bergenheim scored twice in eight minutes during the second period to build a 3-1 lead that sent the sellout crowd of 20,835 into celebratory mode long before it was over.
"It just seemed like they had an answer for everything that we threw at them," Capitals defenceman Karl Alzner said. "That's kind of the tough part. We didn't get rewarded for everything that we threw at them."
Playing on consecutive nights for the first time this post-season, the fifth-seeded Lightning extended their winning streak to seven games and advanced to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since their 2004 Stanley Cup championship season.
"We're definitely happy, but we're not popping champagne or anything," Lightning forward Ryan Malone said. "We know what our goal is and we have to keep going and stay even keel. We haven't done anything yet."
Elsewhere in the NHL, Boston beat Philadelphia 5-1 and San Jose edged Detroit 4-3 in overtime.
At Tampa, Fla., Malone and Marc-Andre Bergeron added goals for the Lightning, who have not lost since dropping into a 3-1 hole against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round.
The Lightning's big three of Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier and Steven Stamkos have elevated their games, but so has Bergenheim, who has a team-leading seven goals through two rounds. St. Louis' sixth goal of the playoffs, with 3:08 remaining, finished Tampa Bay's scoring.
Bergenheim was eighth on the Lightning with 14 regular-season goals, however he's been much more of an offensive force in ousting the Penguins and Lightning.
It's something coach Guy Boucher, who has Tampa Bay in the conference finals in his first season as an NHL coach, has come to expect of the forward.
"Every top game, every important game, every game that there is some pressure, he was in it. He was one of our better players," Boucher said. "Some people freeze under pressure, some people fly away, and some people fight. He fights."
Marco Sturm, John Erskine and John Carlson scored for the Capitals. Ovechkin had an assist on Sturm's goal, but couldn't find the net with any of five shots at Roloson, the 41-year-old, mid-season acquisition who has been a key factor in Tampa Bay's surprising success against Pittsburgh and Washington.
"He was outstanding," Ovechkin said.
The Lightning won the first two games in Washington, then pushed the Capitals to the brink of elimination by winning Game 3 in Tampa on Tuesday night.
They were expecting the toughest game of the series Wednesday, calling the Capitals a proud team that would not be taken lightly. Washington felt the first three games could have gone either way, with Ovechkin insisting after Game 3 that the series was far from over and that he expected his team to come back and win.
"We were hungry and we wanted to win," Ovechkin said. "We wanted to win. They wanted to win. Somebody had to lose. I don't know what to say right now."
Malone scored with Ovechkin in the penalty box for charging, giving Tampa Bay a 1-0 lead at 12:37 of the first period. The Lightning have not lost a game in the playoffs in which they've scored first, however Washington proved again to be resilient after falling behind early.
The Capitals tied it late in the first, scoring for only the second time in 17 power-play opportunities in the series. Jason Arnott and Ovechkin assisted on Sturm's goal, however Washington couldn't build on the momentum during a second period in which it was outshot 17-10.
Bergenheim's sixth and seventh goals of the playoffs put the Lightning up 3-1. The Caps tightened it with Erskine's unassisted goal at 13:40 of the second, but Roloson answered every challenge after that.
"It's very frustrating. I don't think any of us saw this coming down, happening like it did. Probably the last thing that was in our mind, but you have to give them credit," Capitals forward Mike Knuble said. "They played well, and they held their own when they had to. And really, when they got their chances they capitalized. It was pretty amazing how well they could do it."
At Boston, Zdeno Chara and David Krejci scored in the opening 63 seconds, and the Bruins added two more goals in a 95-second span in the second period to beat Philadelphia and take a 3-0 lead in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
One year after watching their 3-0 series lead disappear in an unprecedented collapse, the Bruins again moved one game from sweeping Philadelphia in the conference semis. This year they have a chance to do it at home, with Game 4 on Friday night at the TD Garden.
At Detroit, Devin Setoguchi scored 9:21 into overtime to finish a hat trick, and San Jose took a commanding 3-0 lead over the Red Wings in the Western Conference semifinals.
The Sharks will have a chance to sweep the series in Game 4 on Friday night in Detroit.