As the Washington Capitals shuffled through the locker room after the game, Braden Holtby slammed the door as he headed to the showers.
The Capitals had just lost another Game Seven to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Capitals were out of the playoffs after the second round once again, after they fell down 3-1 early in the series. It has been nearly 20 years since the team has made it to a conference final. A few minutes later, Holtby walked back into the room.
“I don’t think we gave ourselves a chance,” Holtby said. “We’re going to have to live with that.”
Holtby is mad pic.twitter.com/gV4ElX8PAI
— Flintor (@TheFlintor) May 11, 2017
This year, things had seemed different. At the Capitals morning skate before Game Seven against the Penguins on Wednesday, the Caps were confident. The team had played in five winner-take-all games since 2012, posting a 2-3 record in those contests. But these Capitals were not the same. The 2016-17 Caps were built for one thing: to win a Stanley Cup.
Those previous defeats, with the Caps never getting past the second round in the Alex Ovechkin era, meant nothing, the team said. Only three players remained from Washington’s stinging 6-2 loss at home in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Semifinals in 2009. It was a media narrative. And it was ready to be put to rest.
This team, constructed by general manager Brian MacLellan and head coach Barry Trotz had won the Presidents’ Trophy as the team with the best regular season record two years in a row.
On Wednesday, all they had to do was get past the Pittsburgh Penguins, who defeated them in six games last season on their way to a Stanley Cup championship.
In this series, the Caps dominated possession, but the Pens took advantage of nearly every turnover.
Marc-Andre Fleury, who was forsaken at the end of last season, was dominant in the net. The Caps outshot the Pens in all seven games. The Caps played well. They had every right to come out on top. But they lost 2-0.
“It sucks,” Jay Beagle, who played in the 6-2 disaster in 2009 said, seemingly holding back tears.
As the clocked ticked down, the feeling inside Verizon Center wasn’t panic or anger. It was nihilism. Caps fans are used to this; some of the them headed for the exits. Some of them stayed until the bitter end to salute their boys. In the Ovechkin era, the Caps have lost four Game Sevens since 2012.
There will be recriminations against Ovechkin, who will turn 32 before next season. He doesn’t deserve the ridicule. Ovechkin has 20 points in 21 elimination games, including 10 goals. He is not a choker.
But this was Ovechkin’s and Nicklas Backstrom’s and the rest of the Caps’ core’s last best chance to win the Stanley Cup in the prime of their career. Had the Capitals defeated the Penguins, they were the favorites to win the Cup. The Caps, with a myriad of restricted free agents demanding raises and unrestricted players ready to cash in on a team with more salary caps space, won’t dominate the NHL in the same way again. They know that.
“It was a good group,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “I don’t think it’s sunk in that it’s done yet. There’s going to be some good people leaving. That’s the way professional sports work. It’s math. Tough to comprehend right now.”
After a while, Ovechkin emerged in the Capitals locker room. A massive horde of reporters formed around him. Finally he was asked if thought he would advance past the second round in the future. The captain paused for a while, leaning against the television at the center of the Capitals locker room.
“We’re trying,” Ovechkin mumbled, almost inaudibly. “We’re trying our best.”
Then Ovechkin ended the scrum, bolting for the exit.
And with that, the Capitals began to embark on an uncertain future.
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