Reporting David Elfin
Four years ago when Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green were still kids on the rise playing in just their second playoff series, I faced a dilemma. My eldest daughter’s spring concert at Walt Whitman was the same night as Caps-Penguins Game 7 at Verizon Center. Fatherly love combined with having covered six postseason series losses to Pittsburgh sent me to the high school auditorium. When I called my next-door neighbor from the lobby to check on the Caps during intermission, he told me not to bother rushing home. Final score: Penguins 6, Caps 2.
That was the worst elimination defeat in Washington’s ignominious postseason history. That is, until last night’s 5-0 whipping by the visiting New York Rangers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
Where to rank this horror among the wreckage that the Caps have delivered their fans during so many playoff springs? There was the quadruple-overtime loss to the New York Islanders after Washington had ruled the series 3-1 in 1987. There were the blown 3-1 leads to Pittsburgh in 1992 and 1995, with the Caps outscored 10-1 in the final two games of the latter debacle. There were the pair of four straight defeats to Tampa Bay in 2003 and 2011, the former ending in triple overtime and the latter nearly as stunning a sweep as the one by eighth-seeded Montreal in 2010.
Those all hurt more except for three factors.
First, last night’s loss was the most one-sided of Washington’s 24 playoff exits. Incredibly, the Caps have now lost their final home game in 21 of 24 postseasons while dropping to 2-7 in their own building in Game 7s, 1-4 during the Ovechkin era.
Second, during all their years of playoff agony, the Caps had never been shut out twice in the same spring, let alone in consecutive games or the final two of a series. After winning Game 5 on Mike Ribeiro’s beauty of an overtime goal, Washington never scored again, firing 62 shots on Henrik Lundqvist while never once beating New York’s stellar goalie.
Most important, despite their March renaissance under rookie coach Adam Oates the boys in red know that their window to win a Stanley Cup is closing.
Ovechkin and Green are still just 27 and Backstrom’s just 25, but how many times can they be on the wrong end of series-ending handshakes before owner Ted Leonsis and general manager George McPhee decide that this group – which has yet to even reach the conference finals in six tries — will never win anything that matters?
I was on the beat a decade ago when Leonsis and McPhee fired coach Bruce Cassidy in November after a slow start and then broke up the star-laden team that had never gotten it done, shipping out Peter Bondra, Sergei Gonchar, Jaromir Jagr, Robert Lang et al. In return came a bunch of prospects (Brooks Laich among them) and draft picks (Green among them) as well as the NHL’s worst record which turned into the No. 1 overall selection in the 2004 draft, an 18-year-old Russian named Ovechkin.
While it gave the fans thrills last night to see Ovi throwing his body around for 13 hits on the Rangers, the captain should have passed most of that duty onto such bruisers as John Erskine and Matt Hendricks and done what he’s paid $9 million to do: score. Instead, Ovechkin finished the series in a five-game drought, the longest of his spectacular eight-year career.
“Maybe we tried too hard to put the puck in the net,” Ovechkin said. “Maybe we weren’t too loose to figure out how to do it.”
Rangers fourth-liner Arron Ashram, best known in these parts for mocking Jay Beagle after the then-Caps rookie lay bleeding on the ice after their 2011 fight, had two goals in the series to Ovechkin’s one.
“You got to find ways to score,” said Washington defenseman Karl Alzner, who questioned whether the Caps have the right mentality to win the big one. “And if he can’t, then other guys got to find ways to score. And if no one can, this happens.”
As the Caps were heading meekly towards the golf course yet again, the Bruins, whom they stunned in Game 7 last year in Boston, rallied from a three-goal deficit with 10:41 to play and a two-goal deficit with just 83 seconds remaining to beat Toronto in overtime and advance to take on the Rangers. That’s how teams with “the right mentality” do it.
“We knew what we had to do, and [the Rangers] just did such a good job of covering up their weaknesses, their holes,” Alzner lamented. “That’s a tough thing, a tough pill to swallow when you know how to beat a team, but you can’t quite get it.”
But the Caps never do quite get it. Green could have been Rod Langway circa 1987 or Calle Johansson – now Oates’ defensive assistant – circa 1995 when he tried to explain how things went so wrong since his overtime game-winner gave Washington a 2-0 series lead just nine days earlier.
“Things that happen during [a] series just seem for whatever reason at the wrong time happen to us,” Green said. “That’s no reflection of the guys in the dressing room or how bad we wanted it. The heart and the depth of the guys throughout the lineup is not the reflection of how it should end.”
But we always know how it’s going to end — with another earlier than expected playoff defeat.
Backstrom termed this one “embarrassing,” adding, “We didn’t execute so shame on us. We weren’t good enough.”
The Caps never are, which is a big reason why of the 14 markets with teams in all four major sports, Washington has gone the longest without a championship, 21 years and counting.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin