For the second straight season, the Capitals’ campaign comes to a screeching halt on May 10, in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, and at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
After falling into a 3-1 hole in the series – largely because it lost the first two games of the set on home ice – Washington was whitewashed 2-0 in Wednesday’s deciding Game 7 on home ice.
“When you lose the right to keep playing – when you’re in the playoffs and you have a team you feel can do some damage – it always is a bitter pill to swallow,” rues Caps coach Barry Trotz. “We played a very good hockey team. But we put ourselves in a 3-1 hole, and we dug ourselves out and showed a lot of character.
“But tonight you saw two teams that had their backs against the wall. Tonight, [Pittsburgh] had their back against the wall and they responded in a real positive way.”
Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury made 29 stops to blank the Caps in what has become an all too familiar Game 7 refrain in the District. Washington has now played 10 decisive seventh games since 2008, and the next time it scores more than two goals in any of them will be the first time. The Caps have netted a paltry total of 13 goals in those 10 games, somehow managing to win three of them.
Three of the Pens’ four victories in this series came at Verizon Center, matching the number of losses the Caps suffered in their final 23 home games of the regular season (20-2-1).
“I don’t know that I can say enough about this group of players,” says Pens coach Mike Sullivan. “We’ve been through so much since I’ve been here, and they just always find a way to respond the right way to any of the challenges or the adversities that this league throws at us. And they did it again tonight.”
Bryan Rust scored the only goal Pittsburgh would require, just ahead of the midpoint of the second period. Patric Hornqvist added an insurance tally early in the third, and the Caps were guilty of some sloppy play in their own end on both goals.
Washington came out flying early in the contest, but they weren’t able to finish any of a number of good scoring chances early in the game. And as it turned out, those chances were only available early in the contest.
“Just like early in the series, we had our looks and we didn’t finish,” says Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen. “Fleury was good. We’ve got to finish. The first three or four minutes there, we came out like a house on fire. It sure would have been nice to pop one there.”
The game was still scoreless when Washington got the game’s first power play at 5:47 of the first. Although that two-minute man advantage failed to produce an official shot on net, it produced two excellent chances.
Nicklas Backstrom – one of Washington’s most accurate shooters – missed just wide on a one-timer bid off a great setup from Caps’ captain Alex Ovechkin. Seconds later, Evgeny Kuznetsov deflected a Kevin Shattenkirk point shot just wide as well; the puck kissed the post on its way by.
Daniel Winnik had a good chance at even strength in the last half of the first, and Ovechkin, T.J. Oshie and Backstrom all had excellent scoring chances in the second. But again, the finish was lacking.
In the meantime, the Pens patiently waited for a mistake and the Caps obliged just ahead of the midpoint of the middle period. With Washington’s two fourth-line forwards on the ice with Ovechkin and up against the Sidney Crosby line, the Caps got burned.
Niskanen dropped Jake Guentzel as he skated down the left wing wall in the Caps’ end, stripping him of the puck as well. Niskanen then carried around the back of the net with the puck on his backhand and attempted to shovel it up the right wing wall and out of harm’s way. But Rust hugged the wall and blunted the clearing attempt, all while the three Washington forwards – Ovechkin, Winnik and Jay Beagle – were way up by the Washington line, anticipating a successful clear.
From the right point, Pens defenseman Ian Cole pushed the puck down to Crosby, giving the Pens a three-on-two down low. Crosby went to Guentzel on the left side, and Guentzel went back to Rust on the right. Rust was able to fire a wrist shot high into the cage behind Caps goalie Braden Holtby at 8:49.
Early in the third, another failed attempt to get the puck out of their end doubled the Caps’ deficit. Kevin Shattenkirk tried to put a backhand clear up the right wing wall, perhaps hoping to get some aid from Ovechkin just above the half wall. But the Caps’ captain went at the puck with one hand on his stick, and Pens defenseman Justin Schultz got more of the disc, chipping it down to Hornqvist in the slot.
Both Caps’ defensemen – Shattenkirk and Nate Schmidt – were there, but neither was able to prevent Hornqvist’s backhander that glanced off Holtby’s catching arm, hit the crossbar, and bounded into the net at 4:14 of the third.
Two-goal leads have been cheap in the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the Caps rebounded from a couple of them early in the series, tying the score on both occasions.
But once the defending Cup champion Penguins had that two-goal lead, they locked it down tightly. The Capitals had just five shots on net the rest of the way – two of them with an extra skater in the game’s final minute – and never had more than one on any single offensive-zone entry.
“I really liked our first two periods,” says Trotz. “I thought once [the Pens] got their second goal, they locked it down. They got a lot of energy on their bench, and it sort of got us on our heels. At that point, we didn’t have the structure and those things that maybe give us a chance to get back in. You could see Holts had to make some saves.
“We just couldn’t convert in the first two periods. I thought if we could have got one there, maybe it would have been a little different.”
Roughly half of the players on the Washington roster have contracts that expire at the end of next month. This team was built to win a Cup in one or more of the last three seasons, but it was never even able to get halfway to that lofty goal. That makes this spring’s setback even harder to swallow for the Capitals.
“It’s unfortunate,” says Oshie. “I think in games like these – myself, Nicky, [Ovechkin], [Evgeny Kuznetsov] – we’ve got to find ways to put the puck in the net. In big moments, your big players have to got to play big. And regrettably, I don’t think we did that tonight."
And so a season that held so much promise dies like the others before it, ahead of its time, and with plenty of “ifs,” “could haves,” and “should haves.” The 2016-17 season marks the third time in the last eight seasons in which Washington finished with the best record in the league during the regular season. And yet, the Caps haven’t been beyond the second round since 1998. This year’s model wanted to change the narrative, and they came close to doing so. Instead, they added another excruciating chapter.
“[The Penguins] played a good, smart, hard Game 7, and we just didn’t have an answer,” says Washington defenseman Karl Alzner, another Capital whose contract will expire at the end of next month.
Once again, the Capitals couldn’t finish. And once again, they are finished.