So there was a buzz going through Verizon Center on Monday night. The Capitals had fallen behind the New York Rangers 3-0 early in the second period and they had earned every bit of that deficit.
To the north, the Bruins rallied from a three-goal deficit to tie the Maple Leafs late and then win in overtime. It could be done. All hope wasn't quite lost.
When the Rangers scored 13 seconds into the third period, that flickering light went out.
"Even after the second period, it was like we can do it because we saw what Boston did," Alex Ovechkin said. "We still had hope, if we were gonna make one play maybe it gonna turn around, but [Ryan] Callahan scored a big one and it was over after that."
When New York scored again 6:26 later, the building started to empty. The final was a very ugly 5-0, giving the Rangers the victory in Game 7 of the best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarterfinal series. It was every bit as one-sided as that score would indicate, probably more.
How did this happen? How did a tight series, where the home team had won every game, turn into such a mismatch?
The reasons are many but one big one stands out: New York got continued stellar play out of goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, one of the best in the game. He's an elite goalie, a finalist for the Vezina Trophy. The Caps got shaky play out of goalkeeper Branden Holtby, who has been way more good than bad overall and seems more than capable of developing into a Lundqvist over time.
But Monday night, Lundqvist was Lundqvist and Holtby was not. After giving up two goals and losing in overtime Friday night to fall behind 3-2 in the series, the Rangers gave up zero goals in the two games in which they faced elimination. Who knew Mike Ribeiro's overtime goal on Friday would be the Caps' last of the season and that 72 hours they'd be sitting in their locker room wondering what happened.
Holtby only gave up one in Game 6. Then the wheels came off – not just Holtby – in Game 7. It's not fair to pin the loss on him and none of this is to suggest the Caps have a problem in goal. They don't. Holtby is their future. He's earned that.
He, along with his teammates, earned a whipping Monday night. Lundqvist, and his teammates, earned the spoils.
"All the games were close because of [Lundqvist]," Caps winger Troy Brouwer said. "In quite a few of the games, we outplayed them, we outshot them, we outchanced them. And he stood tall. He's a really good goalie and I think he's the reason they're moving on."
As he should, Brouwer defended his team's starter.
"He's been unbelievable all season long. He played well for us tonight, again," Brouwer said. "We gave up two on ones, we gave up breakaways, we gave up odd-man rushes. We can't expect him to save them all."
No, though when playing against a hot Lundqvist that's pretty much necessary. The Caps did leave Holtby out to dry several times, no question. Those are the times a goalie has to earn his keep, as Lundqvist did several times late in the series – especially in the final two games.
He was clearly making the Caps think a little too much. Too often they tried to maybe get cute, look for one more pass, set up something perfect instead of just blasting the puck in Lundqvist's direction.
Brouwer said Lundqvist wasn't in their heads, that the extra passes were "skill players trying to look for skill plays." He also conceded the Caps needed to wind up and fire more.
"Maybe we needed to put more pucks on net," he said. "Maybe we needed to shoot instead of looking for one more pass."
As sharp as Holtby had been at Verizon, allowing just two goals in the previous three games there, the Rangers were willing to wind up and shoot. Monday night's first goal was an example. Arron Asham skated over the blue line and let it rip. It went in high, 1-0 Rangers.
It was a goal, most nights, Holtby keeps from happening. Not this night. And in a series where goals were at a premium in D.C., it was enough to rattle the Caps and give the Rangers a positive jolt.
"I just kind of lost it a little bit. I didn't react very clean to it, and he beat me – he put it in a pretty good spot," Holtby said. "You know, one that I think I probably could stop. I didn't see the replay of it, but it's in the past now."
Just like the Caps season. Up 2-0 in the series, they now pack up while the Rangers advance to play Boston. Ovechkin, an MVP candidate, didn't score a goal after the first game and had no points in the final five. The Caps' second line certainly had a night to forget – Eric Fehr was on the ice for four goals last night, as was Ribeiro. Brouwer was on for three.
Lots of blame to go around, for sure, and little of it goes to Holtby. He had a lot to do with this series going seven. His future remains bright.
But on this last night of the season, the veteran in the other net showed the youngster there's still a little ways to go.
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