Once again, Alex Ovechkin stood at the front of the Washington Capitals’ locker room with a red towel around his neck. The video screen behind him was frozen on a play in the first period, when there was still hope this run would end differently.
“It’s hard to say right now,” he said of why the Capitals’ season reached the same conclusion as it always has in his career, another postseason exit short of the conference finals. What might make this one sting the most is that Washington also has no clear answers for its future after the best team to surround Ovechkin again fell short of its Stanley Cup goal.
The announcement that there was one minute left in the game sent fans clad in red for the exit. The end of the season, and perhaps an era, was a death hard to watch, a 2-0 shutout loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 7 of an Eastern Conference semifinal.
“I expect the same questions over and over again when you lose,” Nicklas Backstrom said.
There will again be questions of whether the Capitals built around Backstrom and Ovechkin will ever get past the second round. But the bigger mystery is how this group moves forward as it could be dismantled this offseason. Washington has 11 players entering either restricted or unrestricted free agency, and this was considered the second season of what General Manager Brian MacLellan had called a two-year window for this group.
The team climbed out of a three-games-to-one hole to tie the series, injecting belief into a tortured fan base that this year would indeed be different. But in front of a home crowd in a Game 7, the Capitals squandered an opportunity after becoming regular-season champions two years in a row.
“You wonder how much disappointment you have to put yourself through before you can find a way to get the job done,” forward T.J. Oshie said.
The mood inside Washington’s locker room was a mixture confusion and disappointment. The confusion was in why the Capitals couldn’t capitalize on their opportunities early in the game. The disappointment was in not producing the team’s best effort in one of the franchise’s most important games.
“It’s just extreme disappointment,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “There are times when you know you’re not the best team in the playoffs. But we honestly thought we were the best team in the playoffs, and showed flashes of it. But when you don’t even get past the second round, it’s extreme disappointment.”
Ovechkin was on the ice for both of the Penguins’ goals, a minus-two, and he played 18:22, seventh in ice time among forwards. After the game, Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said he wasn’t “emotionally” ready to comment on the captain’s performance.
Under a new regime with MacLellan and Trotz, the supporting cast around Ovechkin and Backstrom steadily had improved over the past three seasons. The defense was fortified with the additions of Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik and Kevin Shattenkirk. Ovechkin and Backstrom finally got a stable top-line right winger with the trade for Oshie, and then the acquisitions of Justin Williams and center Lars Eller further bolstered a deep forward corps.
The roster produced considerable regular-season success, but it couldn’t get past Pittsburgh last season, and despite offseason tweaks, it found itself in the exact same position a year later. That’s especially disappointing because the Penguins were without No. 1 defenseman Kris Letang for the entire series, as well as top goaltender Matt Murray. Captain and star center Sidney Crosby also suffered a concussion in Game 3, and when he missed Game 4, the Capitals missed an opportunity to beat a shorthanded Penguins team.
In this Game 7, Pittsburgh was without speedy winger Carl Hagelin and defenseman Trevor Daley, but the Penguins still prevailed over a Capitals team that wasn’t missing anyone.
Now the roster is facing an offseason of turnover as young stars Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt are due raises in restricted free agency. With salary cap constraints, Washington will be unable to keep most of its unrestricted free agents in Oshie, Williams, Shattenkirk, Alzner and Daniel Winnik.
But while the urgency of the team’s uncertain future showed at times, it wasn’t enough as Washington fell into a hole and never climbed out of it.
After neither team scored in the first period, the Penguins sent a wave of nausea through Verizon Center when they broke the stalemate 8:49 into the second period. Bryan Rust, who had yet to score a goal in this series, got a pass from Jake Guentzel in the slot and one-timed it up and over goaltender Braden Holtby after Washington failed to clear the puck out its zone.
The Capitals then got a power play less than two minutes later, a big moment to respond quickly, and Verizon Center played its “Unleash the Fury” montage much earlier than normal to spark the crowd. But Washington managed just one shot on goal in a fruitless man-advantage.
“I don’t think we gave ourselves a chance, and we’re going to have to live with that and take full responsibility for that because it’s not what we worked for,” Holtby said.
Longtime fans of the franchise may have started to believe that the team is cursed when Oshie missed on a partially open net as Fleury seemed unsure of where the puck was. They might have started to believe Washington is unlucky when Ovechkin had Fleury beat on a wrist shot with less than four minutes left in the second period but the puck clanged off the shaft of Fleury’s stick. A stoppage followed, and the camera caught Fleury smiling under his mask.
Then with less than two minutes until second intermission, a point-blank chance by Backstrom hit the post.
All season, Washington played its best when desperate. It seemed that a series of saves by Holtby could be the momentum shift the Capitals so badly needed to start the third period. A gaffe in the defensive zone gave Crosby a partial breakaway, and Holtby came all the way out to the slot to stop him and then a second shot by Ron Hainsey.
But then a failed defensive zone exit by Ovechkin led to the Penguins’ second goal, as Patric Hornqvist backhanded a puck through defenseman Nate Schmidt’s legs and past Holtby.
And there Ovechkin was again after 60 minutes, on the losing end of a handshake line, perhaps unsure of how the Capitals found themselves in this familiar position once again.
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Summary: Penguins 2, Capitals 0