WASHINGTON — Braden Holtby slammed his fist into a door. Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom were left speechless. Jay Beagle, eyes wet, could not bear to think too hard about a future without some of his Capitals teammates.
Frustration, anger, bafflement and shock were the emotions that roiled the Caps’ locker room after Wednesday’s season-ending 2-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins at Verizon Center.
Add this disappointing effort to an endless list of bitter Stanley Cup playoff defeats for Washington. Shocked fans sat in their seats minutes after the final horn sounded. The Caps gamely rallied from a 3-1 series deficit to force a Game 7 at home. But the momentum halted there.
A Bryan Rust goal in the second period and a Patric Hornqvist tally in the third were all the Penguins needed to advance to the Eastern Conference final against Ottawa
“It was a good group and I don’t think it’s sunk in that it’s done yet, but there’s gonna be some good people leaving,” Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “That’s the way professional sports work. That’s math. So, tough to comprehend right now.”
Key players up and down the roster are free agents and Washington’s salary-cap situation means many will leave. That list includes forward T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams, defensemen Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk. And there isn’t much cap space left to replace the ones who depart. The two-time Presidents’ Trophy winners might not have a better chance to win a Stanley Cup and that made the loss even more bitter.
“There’s obviously just disappointment. It hurts,” Beagle said. “There’s no other words to really explain it. I didn’t think we’d be in this situation the way we were playing. It sucks.”
There were questions about Washington’s urgency at the start. Pittsburgh played a much more impactful game than it had in either Game 5 or Game 6 as it gave away its series lead. But the Caps had plenty of scoring chances on Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury early and just couldn’t bury the one that would ease the tension in the building.
And once Rust pounced after a Matt Niskanen turnover – assists from Jake Guentzel and, of course, Sidney Crosby – the doubt crept in. An Ovechkin turnover led to Hornqvist’s goal.
“There are times when you know you’re not the best team in the playoffs,” Alzner said. “But we honestly thought we were the best team in the playoffs, and showed flashes of it. But when you don’t even get past the second round, it’s extreme disappointment.”
It was a series of missed opportunities. The Penguins played without top defenseman Kris Letang and Trevor Daley missed Games 6 and 7. Crosby sustained a concussion and was out for Game 4. Key forward Connor Sheary also missed Game 4 with a concussion. The Penguins still managed to hang around all series. Several Washington players pointed to the opening two losses at home as where the series really got away from them.
“That’s just something that unfortunately for me and my career and for a lot of these guys,” Oshie said. “You wonder how much disappointment you have to put yourself through before you can find a way to get the job done.”
Ovechkin could hardly bring himself to answer a question about the future, whether the Caps will ever make it past the second round. Washington is now 3-7 in Game 7s during the Ovechkin era dating to 2008 and 4-13 in deciding games overall in 42 seasons. It is as brutal a playoff resume as any team in professional sports right now and shows no signs of ending. Asked about that, Ovechkin simply shook his head, his face emotionless, his blue eyes staring off into the distance.
“We’re trying,” he said simply and then walked away.
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