- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 14, 2009

The shots to the core of the Washington Capitals’ playoff dreams came with stunning succession, each one more lethal than the last.

An easy tap-in goal from Sidney Crosby. A wrist shot from Craig Adams eight seconds later. Two blasts past Washington goaltender Simeon Varlamov in the first 2:13 of the second period.

Just like that, one of the greatest seasons in the team’s 35-year history was effectively over. The final two periods of the Caps’ 6-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals were equal parts dirge and desperate rally, as the 18,277 at the Verizon Center tried to will the Caps to a comeback they knew wasn’t likely.

The loss ended one of the most hyped NHL playoff series of the last 20 years, a taut seven-game affair that featured three overtime contests, with a whimper. The series, a battle between rival superstars in Caps forward Alex Ovechkin and Crosby, had fueled some of the best television ratings for a Stanley Cup playoff series this decade. It had lived up to its billing as a monumental clash between the young stars, with Crosby and Ovechkin combining for 16 goals in the series.

But for the Caps, it ended an electric season with yet another playoff loss to perhaps their fiercest rival.

“We’re disappointed,” Ovechkin said. “We’re a pretty good team. We want to move forward, but God didn’t want to push us forward. It’s all about us, again. It’s disappointing.”

Washington lost to Pittsburgh for the fifth consecutive time in the playoffs, this seven-game defeat following four losses in a seven-year span beginning with the 1994-95 season.

The Caps came into these playoffs having tied a team record with 50 regular-season wins, securing the Eastern Conference’s No. 2 seed and becoming perhaps the most talked-about team in the District in the process. Their rally from a 3-1 deficit in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the New York Rangers propelled them into the semifinals for the first time since their Stanley Cup Finals run in 1998, and the Caps were dreaming of advancing once they took a 2-0 lead in this series.

That was before three straight losses to the Penguins put the Caps back on the brink of disaster, stayed only by an overtime win in Pittsburgh on Monday night.

It was evident early Wednesday night that Washington’s ride wasn’t going to last.

Afterward, it left several Caps players questioning what they need to do to craft more-consistent playoff performances.

Washington entered the night 6-1 in elimination games in the last two years. The corollary to that, though, is that the Caps had played in seven must-win games over three playoff series in the past two years.

It’s a pace Caps coach Bruce Boudreau suspected his team couldn’t sustain, and it showed defenseman Brian Pothier what the team needs to correct for future playoff runs.

“I hope this is a really good learning experience for us because we make it really hard on ourselves,” Pothier said. “We’re an emotional roller coaster ride, all the time. Even in the regular season, we’re down three goals, we come back and win it. I really hope this is the kind of situation where we can really understand what it takes to win - how we need to play simple hockey, sit on a lead, do the small things.”

By the time the teams took the ice for the second period, the fire-up-the-crowd clips usually reserved for third-period rallies were already rolling. When the Penguins scored a pair of goals early in the second period, one from Bill Guerin and the other from Kris Letang, the tremors from the Verizon Center crowd were all but gone, only occasionally replaced by fans’ panicked pleas for the Caps to shoot every time a player got the puck.

Varlamov, the rookie who became a playoff hero after he replaced a struggling Jose Theodore following a loss to the Rangers in Game 1 of the conference quarterfinals, was back on the bench after the fourth goal. Theodore replaced him for the final 37:47 and bookended the Caps’ 14-game playoff stretch by finishing the game in the net.

“He did so much since he took over in Game 2 [of the quarterfinals],” Mr. Boudreau said. “I just thought [emotion] just poured out of him [after the fourth goal], so that’s why I made the change then. I wish I’d have made it one goal sooner.”

It’s not likely to be the Caps’ last playoff run. They return their core of young stars, including Ovechkin, center Nicklas Backstrom and defenseman Mike Green, and could have space under the NHL’s salary cap to bolster a sometimes-ragged group of defensemen.

Asked whether he thought the team had made progress this year, Mr. Boudreau said: “I believe so. During the regular season, we were the fourth-highest point team in the NHL, and you go to Game 7 in the second round. We’re very close to being a very good team. Maybe all it is, is a little bit more maturity in some areas. I think we’ll be able to make that step. I believe next year, if you’re asking me right now, we’d be very disappointed if we weren’t in the final four.”

But as the final two minutes ticked off the clock, with the remaining fans at the Verizon Center rising to thank the team for its stirring season, any thoughts of a drive past Pittsburgh and to the deepest reaches of the playoffs had to wait another year.

“It’s a tough pill to swallow,” forward Brooks Laich said. “We did a lot of good things this year, but this game tonight is how this season is going to be remembered. And it’s a shame because I think a lot of our players did a lot of good things. As an organization, I thought we did a lot of good things. It’s a sour note to go out on.”

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