For weeks, the Washington Capitals have insisted they were not the same team, that they were one that could not be haunted by the disappointments of the past.
Different team? Same result.
Derek Stepan scored the winning goal at 11:24 of overtime as the New York Rangers advanced to the Eastern Conference Final on Wednesday, defeating the Capitals, 2-1, in the decisive Game 7 of the teams’ second-round playoff series.
Alex Ovechkin scored in the first period and Braden Holtby had 37 saves for the Capitals, who had insisted all postseason they do not bear the weight of their previous playoff collapses. Instead, they again failed to close out a series they once led after four games, marking the fifth time in franchise history that has happened.
“It feels bad,” Ovechkin said. “We were so close to finish the series here, but we didn’t, and they come back. I don’t think we played bad. We give up everything, and you know, it’s — I don’t know what to say about it. It’s tough. It’s tough to take.”
Stepan won a faceoff against Eric Fehr, who was playing in his first game back from an unspecified injury. The puck went back initially to Keith Yandle at the right half-wall, and he sent it up near the blue line to Dan Girardi, who unleashed a shot that Holtby stopped with his left pad.
The rebound, though, bounced off either Brooks Orpik or Rangers winger Chris Kreider in front of the net, and it headed directly toward Stepan, who had an open net with Holtby still trying to recover from his original save.
“It was just a shot from the point,” Holtby said. “Got a rebound on the right side, so I was going left. It hit something and went right to the guy. I don’t know what I could do different.”
The Capitals, seeking a chance to pursue their first conference championship since qualifying for the Stanley Cup Final in 1998, hit the road for Game 5 on Friday looking to sew it up. They could not do so, surrendering a tying goal with 1:41 remaining before falling in overtime, then lost again on Sunday in Game 6, falling behind at home by three goals early in the third period before rallying late.
That loss led to Ovechkin’s profession of confidence in his teammates, noting twice afterward that the Capitals were going to emerge victorious in the decisive game. Instead, Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green, who have been together since the start of the 2007-08 season, will have to wait until at least next season to advance past the second round. So, too, will first-year coach Barry Trotz, who guided the Nashville Predators to the postseason seven times in 15 years but never beyond the second round.
The Rangers, the Presidents’ Trophy winners, have won their last 10 elimination games at home, a league record, and 14 of 17 overall. They still have also never lost a Game 7 at Madison Square Garden — a record that could be tested again in the next round, when they open at home against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday afternoon.
Ovechkin, who had scored only two goals in his previous eight Game 7 appearances, backed up his promise early. Backstrom won a faceoff at the left circle and sent the puck back to Ovechkin, who struggled to contain it along the wall until Backstrom recovered it. He sent it down in the left corner to Marcus Johansson, who took advantage of three converging Rangers players to whip the puck across the left dot to Ovechkin for the one-timer.
The goal at 12:50, Ovechkin’s third of the series, fifth of the playoffs and 36th of his playoff career, punctuated the Capitals’ first-period punch. On their heels over the first 20 minutes for nearly the entire series, they responded by outshooting their opponents, 15-10, and took only their second lead after the first period of the entire postseason.
That momentum didn’t carry over into the second, where the Capitals were hampered by penalties. They spent the first 1:27 on the penalty kill, then a pair of whistles on Green — one for tripping, then another for cross-checking 39 seconds after he got out of the box — gave the Rangers the opening they needed.
Hayes scored at 6:22, taking the puck from J.T. Miller just outside the left crease and finding the back door wide open. It was the fourth opportunity of the night for New York’s penalty kill, which entered the game having scored just twice in 14 chances. It also prevented the Capitals from establishing their offense until the back half of the period, with the third line taking a shift that lasted approximately 1:10 in the final three minutes.
A back-and-forth third period, fractured by nine offsides calls, boiled down to a frenetic final minute, when Ovechkin and Dominic Moore each had scoring opportunities. That set the stage for the overtime period, in which the Capitals had two minute-long possessions in the attacking zone over the first 10 minutes.
“We had some extended shifts there where they were on fumes and we had some looks,” Trotz said. “They had a little bit of a save, and you know, they just — they found a way to do it. You give them credit [for hanging in there], but at the same time, it’s going to be a play where you might have extended time, extended time, and then a blocked shot and something goes there, and then you end up getting a bounce right to their stick, which they did.”
It was the third goal of the playoffs and the first of the series for Stepan. Behind him, Henrik Lundqvist survived 35 shots, including 13 in overtime, for the Rangers, who became the first team to bounce back from 3-1 deficits in consecutive years.
“I think we played the right way,” Backstrom said. “It’s something we’ve got to build on, but it’s going to be — we’ll have to think about that. Not right now.”