NEW YORK — Another opportunity has passed the Washington Capitals by. That's five now in the Alex Ovechkin era, starting with the Game 7 loss to Philadelphia in 2008. The one Saturday night at Madison Square Garden might hurt more than any of them, though, because this time the Caps played The Right Way for a solid month — winning playoff hockey. Unlike past seasons, there wasn't a single game they weren't present and accounted for.
"Without a doubt last year was painful," Matt Hendricks said after the New York Rangers handed the Capitals a 2-1 defeat in their latest Game 7 heartbreaker, "but we got outplayed [by a Tampa Bay team that swept them]. I'm not sure we got outplayed in this series. We tooth-and-nailed it with them the whole way — and they got one more goal."
Maybe that's the best way to look at this latest Caps failure, this latest season in which, in Karl Alzner's opinion, they "underachieved." Under Dale Hunter, they got a little closer to where they need to be — close enough to at least glimpse the Stanley Cup. You couldn't really say that about their Game 7 loss to eventual champion Pittsburgh in the second round in '09. Losing a winner-take-all game 6-2 on your home ice isn't that close. Nor could you say it about last year's unraveling against the Lightning in Round 2.
But in these playoffs, in going the distance with defending champ Boston and top-seeded New York, the Capitals didn't seem that far away — especially with their 22-year-old goaltender, Braden Holtby, measuring up favorably against the Bruins' Tim Thomas and the Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist. If Holtby proves to be a long-term answer for the Caps, then there will almost certainly be other playoff nights like this for the franchise, nights that might lead to even bigger things.
"We were very confident of ourselves in the playoffs," the young netminder said. "We can't really hang our heads with the effort [we gave]. Basically, six seconds in Game 5 was the difference."
Actually, the Capitals needed to survive 7.6 more seconds in Game 5 to win — and hypothetically wrap up the series in Washington two nights later. But he's right. It was the difference. The Caps lost this series, essentially, because they had to win it twice. After they gave away Game 5, allowing two goals (one in overtime) while the Rangers were on a four-minute power play, they had to come back to the Garden and beat the Rangers again ... and they just weren't up to it.
Indeed, Alzner thought they played "probably our worse game [of the bunch] in Game 7." But that might be an exaggeration, more a reflection of the magnitude of the contest — and what the loss cost the Capitals.
That said, the Caps made it awfully hard for themselves by giving up a Brad Richards goal in the first 92 seconds — a play straight out of the "How Not To Win A Seventh Game Handbook" — and then managing a mere four shots on Lundqvist in the third period, when they were trying to battle back from 1-0 and 2-0 deficits and had the man advantage for the only time all night.
Except for a flurry in the second period, when the Capitals swarmed the Rangers end for several minutes but couldn't break through, "We didn't get as good chances as we did in other games," Alzner said. "They played tighter than they did the other night — and amped up their game the way you should in a Game 7." The Caps, alas, couldn't quite match the New Yorkers' wattage. Their only score came from Roman Hamrlik, of all people, with 9:19 left, the defenseman slipping what looked like a knuckleball past King Henrik.
It's strange to think that Ovechkin and Co., who were built to be an offensive juggernaut before they grew a conscience, might have have been bounced from the playoffs this year because they couldn't put the puck in the net at key times. But that's a fair assessment of What Went Wrong, too. In their preoccupation with defense, they lost some of their ability to score — and with it, the ability to put opponents away.
As a result, every playoff game was a white knuckler. And when you cut it so incredibly close, you leave yourself vulnerable to all kinds of twists of fate — a penalty, a deflection, plain old bad luck, you name it. Alzner can hardly be blamed, then, for saying, "Hopefully, there won't be any more Game 7s. Hopefully, we can win series [in the future] without doing that."
Hopefully. Yes, amid the despair, there was a certain amount of hope in the Capitals locker room. You had the sense that, for once, they'd left it all on the ice — or as much of "it," anyway, as they ever had. But they'd still come up short, had once again failed to seize the moment. The club Ted Leonsis envisions being a contender for a decade, if not longer, is now 0-for-5. And another long offseason looms.
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