The shock is still settling in. The Capitals played a home game at Verizon Center on Friday night and for the first time in years it meant nothing.
The Stanley Cup playoffs will begin next week. But Washington won't be a part of the tournament for the first time since 2007. For six years in a row the season ended on the ice in crushing fashion. But that still felt better than this – playing out the regular season with nothing to look forward too except a long summer without hockey.
To their credit, the Caps haven't played like a team with nothing to gain. They looked respectable once again in a 4-0 victory over Chicago. Alex Ovechkin scored his 51st goal and brought the crowd to its feet. It was Washington's fourth win in a row and yet it meant very little.
"When you lose in a Game 7 usually you can tell yourself you went out swinging," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "You're in the playoffs. You had a chance to win the Cup. When you don't put yourself in [the playoffs]...one's more of a crushing one and one is more of an embarrassing one."
On Monday the players will gather together one final time, the fate of their general manager and coach uncertain. There will be exit meetings and final physicals. What awaits them upon return to Washington in late August, however, is uncertain. They will have months to figure out what went wrong, why and how to fix it. That's beyond their control now.
"For me, it's really tough. I've never missed playoffs junior, AHL, NHL, anything," forward Troy Brouwer said before the game. "I've been close a few times, but you still have that fight in you, that battle that you keep going forward. This year, with three games left in the season, it's kind of an empty feeling."
Still, they are professionals, coach Adam Oates said, and no matter what fate has in store for the front office, coaches and players in the coming weeks they owed it to themselves, to the game, to give an effort. That doesn't always happen in these situations.
Ovechkin opened the scoring just 2:04 into the contest with a power play goal, his 24th of the season. That leads the NHL. So do his 51 goals total. That shot came from his trusty spot on the left circle, a one-timer that beat Chicago goalie Corey Crawford.
Later in the period, the fourth line jumped into the act. Jay Beagle knocked down a pass from teammate Dmitry Orlov and on a second attempt whacked it past Crawford for a 2-0 lead. Nicklas Backstrom added an even-strength goal in the second period to make it 3-0, shooting from a bad angle to Crawford's right.
Ovechkin's assist was the 392nd of his career and tied him for second on the franchise's all-time list with Mike Gartner. Alzner's assist on that Backstrom goal tied his career high. Marcus Johansson left the game with an undisclosed upper-body injury and will miss Sunday's finale against Tampa Bay, according to Oates. That was about the only bad news on the night for Washington.
Beagle added a second goal late in the second period, the first time he's ever scored twice in his NHL career. It was a thrilling personal moment in a game that meant nothing in the standings. He had a few chances at a hat trick late, but finally, exhausted, jumped off the ice in the final seconds even as his teammates implored Beagle to stay on.
"It was obviously special," Beagle said. "The first shift, [Tom Wilson] said the puck was bouncing our way and to push the pace, good things were going to happen. The guys were looking for me all night...It was a fun game to be a part of."
The Caps improved to 38-30-13 and now have 89 points with the chance to finish with 91 if they can beat Tampa Bay at home on Sunday in the season finale. But their latest streak came too late.
Washington has outscored its last four opponents 16-6. But it trails Columbus and Detroit, the Eastern Conference's two wild card teams, by two points with that one game to play and loses all tiebreakers. Those two teams lost in regulation on Friday night. So Sunday, too, will be a glorified exhibition. And that, even after a satisfying win over the defending Stanley Cup champions, was hard to take.
"Soon it's gonna be five months of play golf and do some stuff," Ovechkin said. "Probably going to miss hockey. So that's why you have to give everything and enjoy the moment."
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