PITTSBURGH — The end came suddenly, the familiar sting of spring striking the Capitals once again.
A series that was remarkably even throughout between Washington and the Pittsburgh Penguins concluded on a Nick Bonino goal 6 minutes, 32 seconds into the sudden-death period for a 4-3 victory in Game 6 of a best-of-seven Eastern Conference second round series.
That goal in front of goalie Braden Holtby erased a remarkable comeback from 3-0 down that allowed the Caps to force overtime and stunned the raucous crowd at CONSOL Energy Center. But it wasn’t enough.
And another year ended with Washington captain Alex Ovechkin wondering what it will take to break through. He had a fine series with two goals and three assists.
In the end, the Penguins were only a little better. But the Caps had won the Presidents’ Trophy for the NHL’s best record. And this felt so frustratingly familiar. Just a year ago it was a Game 7 overtime goal by the New York Rangers that ended the season in the second round. The list of heartbreakers during Ovechkin’s career is staggering. Afterward, he tried to make sense of it all.
“Every year, lots of expectations, lots of great players, but something missing,” Ovechkin said. “This group of guys can do better and bigger than just the second round. We have the best goalie in the league, we have a solid group of guys on the defensive side, all four lines can play well. You can see it. We just didn’t execute when we had a chance to put the puck in the net.”
The Caps took a little pride in the comeback. They fell behind 3-0 with the devastating blow a four-minute penalty on defenseman Brooks Orpik that Pittsburgh turned into a pair of goals. Just like that a manageable 1-0 deficit turned into a gaping 3-0 hole.
A power-play goal by T.J. Oshie, so productive all postseason with six goals, gave Washington life. Justin Williams followed with an unassisted tally of his own early in the third and suddenly the building grew tense. A Game 7 back in the District on Thursday seemed possible.
Then the Penguins fell apart. They committed three consecutive delay-of-game penalties in 2:02. That gave the Caps a chance they couldn’t miss. Defenseman John Carlson smashed home a shot at 13:01 to tie the game. The crowd groaned. Pittsburgh suddenly appeared on the ropes.
“Our heart and our drive and our commitment got us back into it,” Caps forward Justin Williams said. “But the playoffs are about owning big moments and we didn’t own enough of them.”
It didn’t help that defenseman Karl Alzner played just 5:16 of ice time. A lingering groin injury that has kept him off the ice for practices for weeks was aggravated. He missed the final 10 minutes of the first period, tried to return and just couldn’t go. Washington was down to five defensemen and would remain so most of the game.
Afterward, Alzner acknowledged that it was a groin injury and unrelated to his left foot getting slashed by Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. He played well throughout the series, a steady rock alongside Matt Niskanen that helped keep Crosby and fellow star Evgeni Malkin in check. Crosby had just two assists in six games and Malkin had a goal and an assist. But the Caps had to do without him.
And now the questions begin anew. What do the Caps have to do to break through? Is it an organizational flaw? An astounding run of bad luck in playoff series dating to 2008? Is time running out on the Ovechkin era? He will be 31 in September. Time is running short. Ovechkin seems to sense it.
And Washington coach Barry Trotz even acknowledged it in his postgame press conference. The Caps have enough talent and players under contract to compete again next year. But even making the playoffs is no guarantee. Argue the reasons for it. There are probably plenty. But it’s another opportunity missed. There won’t be many more for this group.
“When you’re in this game, the shelf life in the National Hockey League if you’re a top player is 10, 12 years,” Trotz said. “So when you don’t go that far the window sort of seems like it closes. And if you haven’t got past that it gets frustrating. It does. There’s no question. The sense of mortality sets in.”
Follow reporter Brian McNally on Twitter