- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 10, 2017

WASHINGTON (AP) - They spoke in hushed, halting tones. They shook their heads a lot.

And with three simple words, used in response to various questions in the postgame locker room - “I don’t know” - goaltender Braden Holtby seemed to capture the grasping-for-answers way the Washington Capitals felt after their season ended with a 2-0 loss to Marc-Andre Fleury and the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference semifinal Wednesday night.

Yes, it was the end, and a familiar one at that. But not just of a season. Or of a second-round series - yet again. Or via a Game 7 loss - yet again. This, quite possibly, could signal the of an era, one featuring so much promise and potential thanks to Alex Ovechkin and others but so little to show for it.

“You don’t get many teams that win the Presidents’ Cup as many times as we have here and be part of an organization that does whatever it takes to win,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “We honestly thought that we were the best team in the playoffs and showed little flashes of it. So when you don’t even get past the second round, it’s just extreme disappointment.”

An arena so raucous at the game’s outset - all the red-jersey-clad fans shouting along with that color’s mention during the national anthem, chanting “Let’s go, Caps!” during play - was much quieter as the final seconds ticked away and Fleury finished off his 29-save shutout for the defending champion Penguins.

“Tonight, I don’t think we gave ourselves a chance,” said Holtby, who allowed goals by Bryan Rust in the second period, and Patric Hornqvist in the third. “We’re going to have to live with that and take full responsibility for that. It’s not what we worked for.”

It was the second year in a row that Ovechkin and Co. had the NHL’s best regular-season record but exited in the second round of the playoffs against Pittsburgh.

Ovechkin has more than his share of goal-scoring titles and MVP awards, but his team has never made it past this stage. Never. Washington is 0-7 in second-round series during his tenure; its last visit to the conference finals came in 1998. Coach Barry Trotz also never has been to a conference final, with Washington or with his previous team, Nashville.

And, no matter how much they insist the past doesn’t matter, the Capitals keep falling short of expectations in the most heartbreaking way: During Alex the Great’s career, they have now played in 10 Game 7s, going 3-7.

“As I said to everybody in the room: I hope you get this opportunity again. You don’t know if you will,” Trotz said.

This offseason could mark a big shift for the franchise.

Top line right wing T.J. Oshie - who tied Ovechkin for the team lead in goals this season - and another couple of forwards, Justin Williams and Daniel Winnik, along with defensemen Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk are unrestricted free agents. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky and Dmitry Orlov are restricted free agents.

So while Pittsburgh faces Ottawa next, the Capitals head into uncertainty.

They certainly had their chances in Game 7. Boy, did they.

There was Ovechkin, taking a shot from the slot late in the second period, but seeing the puck fly off the shaft of Fleury’s stick. The goalie smiled at his fortune after that one.

And with about a minute left in that period, there was Backstrom with a 1-on-1 opportunity, but this shot plunked harmlessly against the net’s side.

After erasing a 3-1 series deficit by winning twice in a row with at-times dominating performances, the Capitals came home with a chance to make a breakthrough.

They could not come through. And now who knows what’ll happen?

“I don’t think it’s sunk in that it’s done yet,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “There’s going to be some good people leaving. That’s the way professional sports work.”


Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at https://twitter.com/HowardFendrich


More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

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