It had only been nine days since the Caps got a Mike Green goal on the power play in overtime to win Game 2 and jump out to a 2-0 series lead over the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series. And it had only been a bit more than 72 hours since Washington got another overtime goal from Mike Ribeiro to take a 3-2 series lead over the Rangers.
Yet those exhilarating feelings have faded into the rear view, pushed aside by the emptiness of another early playoff exit on Monday as the Caps absorbed a shocking 5-0 setback at the hands of the Rangers in Game 7.
After the Green game-winner on May 4, the Caps failed to win even just one of three winnable games in New York.
After the Ribeiro game-winner on Friday night, the Caps failed to score another goal the rest of the way.
Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist shut the door tightly on the Caps after Ribeiro’s overtime game-winner in Game 5. Washington teed up 138 shots in the final 120 minutes of the series. Lundqvist stopped 62 of them. Rangers defenders blocked 44 of them. And the Caps themselves missed the net on 32 occasions.
Washington has played 26 Stanley Cup playoff games against Lundqvist over the last five years, winning 14 of them. The Caps always knew he was capable of having a huge impact on a series, but they hadn’t seen “that” Lundqvist in consecutive playoff games until Games 6 and 7 of this set.
“We threw the kitchen sink at him at times and he stood there and defended,” laments Caps defenseman Mike Green. “He’s a great goaltender. We knew that. We talked about before the series how to beat him. And the times that we did score was [because of] what we talked about. I think at times we kind of got away from that. I’m at a loss for words.”
Washington came out strong and swift in the first period of Monday’s Game 7. They were all over the Rangers in the New York end of the ice. They launched 32 shot attempts to 16 for the Blueshirts in the first 20 minutes. They won 15 of 23 face-offs (65%). They created several good scoring chances, and one of the best of those actually culminated in New York’s first goal of the game.
At the end of a shift just past the 13-minute mark of the first period, Ribeiro threaded the puck toward Green, hitting him in stride as he passed the New York line. Green blew past the Rangers defense and fired a shot on Lundqvist. Of course, Lundqvist made the save. Green lost his balance and went down to the ice below the New York goal line. Rookie right wing Tom Wilson charged after a loose puck in front, as all sorts of chaos was ensuing on both sides. Wilson took a whack at the loose puck in front, but just as he did a New York stick knocked it higher in the zone as Wilson also went down behind the New York goal.
Off went the Rangers on a 4-on-2 rush. Chris Krieder carried in and dropped the puck for Arron Asham. Asham fired from the right circle, and beat Caps goalie Braden Holtby over the glove on the short side.
New York’s fourth line had contributed a key tally, the game’s first goal.
“There was an opening,” recounts Green. “Ribs made a great play. I had a breakaway and then the momentum of the game shifted the other way. They went down and they got a lucky shot. It kind of took the wind out of our sails, but we had a lot of time to come back.”
“I thought Hank made a couple of really good saves early on," says New York coach John Tortorella. "I don’t think we played badly, but they certainly had some opportunities. That was the key. And to be leading 1-0 [after one period] … And I thought we played really well in the slot area, along the boards and did the things we had to do.”
That they did. And even when the Rangers scored twice in a span of 130 seconds early in the second to take a 3-0 lead, the Caps still had a lot of time to come back. The only problem was the guy at the other end of the ice. Here the Caps were in Game 7 of a playoff series in which they hadn’t scored more than three goals in any game. And in two of the three games in which they did score three, they lost.
Getting three goals in 35 minutes – and then another in overtime – was bordering on fantasy against a team and goaltender that had surrendered but a dozen in the previous six games combined. But the Caps plugged on. They again virtually doubled the Rangers in shot attempts in second period at 27-14. Washington needed to jimmy the door open a bit, just get one before the end of the second period, something to spark themselves. Something to spark the crowd.
“We just needed one [goal] to be honest,” says Green. “[Sunday] night, we just needed one to get us going. Tonight we just needed one. I think the outcome could have been the other way. It’s tough to put altogether right now.”
“They got momentum after the second goal,” says Caps captain Alex Ovechkin. “Got the third [goal]. We tried. Everyone was trying. Everybody was doing their best. Even after the second period we were saying ‘we can do it.’”
Thirteen seconds into the third, even that faint hope vanished. Rangers captain Ryan Callahan blew down the right side unmolested and lifted a backhander past Holtby to make it 4-0. At that point, it was quite clearly game over. And season over.
“Everyone was up for the game, we just needed to play better, myself especially,” says Holtby. “We had a chance to win, but it’s in the past now.”
The Capitals did a great job of shutting down New York’s top offensive weapons in the series. Rick Nash was held without a goal; he picked up his second assist of the series in Game 7. Callahan didn’t have a goal until the third period of Game 7. Brad Richards was a non-factor.
New York's top defensive pair of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi effectively bottled up Ovechkin and linemates Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson, one of the league’s hottest trios at the outset of the playoffs. Ovechkin's only goal came on the power play, in Game 1. Backstrom's only goal came while he was on a carry-over shift with Troy Brouwer and Martin Erat. Johansson's only goal came in Game 1 as well. None of the trio scored after the first period of Game 3.
“Obviously they played good on us,” admits Backstrom. “But we should still score goals. I can just talk for myself, my effort. That’s embarrassing.”
In addition to Lundqvist, New York’s lesser lights shone brightly. Asham had two big goals.
“[Asham] scores a lot of goals against him,” notes Tortorella. “I think that’s his third goal against [Holtby]."
Entering the series as New York’s third-line center, Derick Brassard moved up the depth chart with a two-goal, nine-point performance that puts him fourth in the league in playoff scoring. Mats Zuccarello had five points to finish second behind Brassard in scoring in the series. Defenseman John Moore gave the Blueshirts some good minutes on the blueline, helping to ease the loss of Marc Staal.
Washington has made the playoffs for six straight seasons. Three of those seasons have resulted in first-round exits and three have resulted in second-round exits. Over the last half-dozen seasons, the Capitals have put together a sterling regular season slate of 264-143-51.
In the Stanley Cup playoffs following those six seasons, Washington is 27-31.
“Just disappointment,” says Green. “Wanting to win and move on. I thought we had a great team and deserved to. Obviously, not tonight. But I thought throughout the round we played a consistent game. Lundqvist played outstanding. I think he won them the series.”
Playoff series and playoff games can change faster than luck at the blackjack tables. A mistake here, a bad bounce there, a tough call here, a missed opportunity there. Before you know it, the calendar is gone and you’re left to rue what might have been, and to contemplate the next season, still far off on the horizon. And with the entire summer – longer than you’d like it to be, again – stretching ahead to do just that.
A team can be riding high in April and shot down in May, and Caps fans of all makes, models and vintages know it all too well. That’s life.
“It’s crazy I guess how fast things change,” says Caps defenseman Karl Alzner, one of Washington’s top performers throughout the series. “You go from thinking you have a real legitimate shot, and then they make a few adjustments, their guys get hot and next thing you know you’re tied 2-2 [in the series] and you’re in a dogfight again. It was definitely bad for our momentum when they won those two games [in New York], but we still had a pretty good opportunity the last two [games] to do something here and it’s very, very frustrating that we didn’t.”