NEW YORK — Alex Ovechkin sat at his stall in full uniform, interviews long over. It wasn't hard to judge the look on his face; he was a defeated man after the Washington Capitals' season ended Saturday night with a 2-1 Game 7 loss in the Eastern Conference semifinals to the New York Rangers.
"Yeah. It's a terrible feeling now," the captain said. "All I can say, we did our best and it's probably the best team I played [with]."
Perhaps the best team and best run for this core group, but another one-goal loss to wrap up an emotional series and season was hard to take. During a playoff run that included 13 one-goal games and so many times when one mistake could change everything, Game 7 at Madison Square Garden was yet another lesson about the fine line between success and failure.
"I thought we should have won; we didn't play like we should have won, I don't think," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "We didn't play our best game, didn't have enough fight, enough grit. Didn't battle for pucks enough, had a power play that was awful it's really too bad that in a game of this magnitude we stunk the bed pretty much. It's just not good enough for us."
Not good enough to move on to the Eastern Conference final, as the Rangers will now face the New Jersey Devils. And the Caps will face an offseason that could include a coaching change and plenty of roster alterations.
On Saturday night, coach Dale Hunter said "that's not the time right now" to talk about returning to the Caps next season.
"You know, coaching's the next best thing to playing, and to be involved in the Stanley Cup playoffs, it's a privilege to try to take a run at it again," Hunter said.
Losing, like winning, wasn't easy.
In another coin-flip game that could have gone either way, the Caps were left ruing missed opportunities like a full two-minute shift spent in the offensive zone during the second period that included two shots on net and nothing to show for it.
"I felt like as a group were going to get one there. We didn't, but we felt like that was a great offensive push," alternate captain Mike Knuble said. "We just couldn't convert there. I don't think it weighed on us. I don't think it was the be-all, end-all and it was like a give-up moment or anything like that."
Playing with a lead thanks to Brad Richards' goal just 1:32 in when he beat Braden Holtby on New York's first shot, Henrik Lundqvist made a couple of impressive saves, 22 in all, to stifle the Caps during a heavy second-period push in which they tallied half of their shots.
New York went ahead 2-0 on a Michael Del Zotto goal 10:05 into the third period, but the Caps answered back 38 seconds later with one of their own from Roman Hamrlik. They could never muster enough high-quality chances in the final frame to knot the game, however, collecting only four shots in the period.
"When you get beat out, it's tough. It should be tough. Everybody wants to keep playing, but it's one of those things that we came up a goal short," Hunter said. "That's all. Both teams battled. They battled; we battled. We were just a goal short."
The battling never stopped and desperation was evident in the final moments when the Caps had to pull Holtby for the extra attacker for the first time all playoffs.
For this team that needed until the penultimate game of the regular season to reach the playoffs and overtime in Game 7 to beat the defending champion Boston Bruins, it looked like this run wouldn't end this way.
"It's really tough," forward Matt Hendricks said. "We've been playing some really good hockey the last couple months. For it to end this way is hard."
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