Caps' struggles ring a familiar theme

ARLINGTON, Va. -- For all the talk of change that has dominated discussion of the Washington Capitals for the past six months, there is more than a little sense of "here we go again" surrounding the top team in the Eastern Conference.

Oh, there has been change; that much is certain. And maybe those changes -- the maturity, the attention to defensive details, the coaching acumen -- will break the spiral in which the team currently finds itself.

But as the Capitals prepare for Games 3 and 4 of their conference semifinals series against Tampa Bay on Tuesday and Wednesday, it's hard not to think they are exactly where they were a year ago when they blew a 3-1 series lead against eighth-seeded Montreal.

At the end of that series, Washington coach Bruce Boudreau went to great pains to explain the series was lost not by the team's unwillingness to play defense, but by their inability to produce on the power play.

It seemed counterintuitive that a team as talented as the Caps couldn't find the back of the net with the man advantage, but that's what happened. Washington went 1-for-33 on the power play against Montreal and lost three straight, two on home ice, to end its season.

As the Caps gathered for an optional skate Monday morning after Sunday's disheartening 3-2 overtime loss, their second straight home loss against the Lightning, the discussion once again centered on the team's lack of efficiency with the man advantage. The Caps were shut out on six power-play opportunities in Game 2, all of which came in the first two periods, and are 0-for-11 in a series that is on the verge of getting away from them.

"It's really frustrating. And believe me, we're not just sitting there as a group of coaches and saying, 'Oh, OK. It's not working.' We're going over these things with a fine-toothed comb," Boudreau said Monday. "We're trying to make adjustments as we go, but it's those guys that have to do it.

"We all want it to happen, but it's not going our way. We're trying to make changes when we see things that aren't working, and we'll make changes again. And hopefully we'll get it right tomorrow."

Like the Montreal series last season, the Caps' slide has been an insidious thing. It's not bad goaltending; Michal Neuvirth has been great. It's not like they're giving up too much to the Lightning; the Caps have outshot and outchanced them through the first two games. But even without regulars Pavel Kubina and Simon Gagne in Game 2, the Lightning still managed to score twice on the power play, and those goals have proven to be the difference in a tight series.

"The power play has to score, that's the bottom line," Jason Chimera said. "That's the difference in the game right there. If we score two out of six, then it's a different game. We put guys out there to do the job and those guys have to do the job. Whoever gets put out there has to do the job, no matter who you are."

The Capitals managed to score three power-play goals on 16 opportunities against the New York Rangers. Those goals were key to the Caps ousting the Rangers in five games.

"It was the difference in the New York series, why we won those close games -- because we had the power plays and came in with power-play goals," Caps forward Mike Knuble said Monday. "I'm not saying that the Montreal series and this Tampa series are paralleling each other too much. There are a couple common themes at the same time last year when … you look back and say, 'Ah, that was what happened, that's what cost us the series.'"

The key difference?

"Now we still have the chance to do something about it," he said.

Knuble's right, of course.

There is a lot to like about the Caps' play. The Lightning are coming off a seven-game series against Pittsburgh and Tampa coach Guy Boucher has expressed concern about his team's energy level.

"We can't be in anything but a positive frame of mind and we know it's a huge challenge and a huge task here," Knuble said. "And I think you've got to embrace it, not be upset about what's happened."

But the challenge for the Caps is in determining whether their power-play woes are strategic or mental.

Boudreau has used all forms of combinations, including five forwards with Alex Ovechkin on the point and on the half-wall; he's used big men in front; he's tried setting up Alexander Semin and Ovechkin for one-timers. They have tried to open up shooting lanes with various configurations. But it has been all for naught. The frustrating part for the coaching staff has been that the players seem to get away from what has worked in the past because it's not working now.

"If it doesn't work the first time, even though it worked well, and we didn't score, then instead of going back to the well and trying it, we figure we have to try something else," Boudreau said. "And I'm sitting there, saying, 'If this is what works and we're getting chances, let's do it again and again and again, and eventually we'll score.'"

The Tampa Bay Lightning have found a groove this spring; they allowed a Pittsburgh Penguins team sans Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby just one power-play goal on 35 attempts in the first round.

But this Caps team boasts a formidable offensive arsenal. They just haven't revealed themselves to this point and the series has become a battle of wills.

The Caps have two nights to prove they can win such a battle or risk seeing an unpleasant history repeat itself.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.