2012 NHL playoffs: For Washington Capitals, long night ends in disappointment

The cuts were fresh, and so were the wounds you couldn’t see. You don’t lose a Stanley Cup conference semifinal game in three overtimes without feeling some pain, physically, spiritually and mentally. When you are able to feel anything at all.

The sopping-wet Caps wore glazed looks in the locker room Wednesday night — or rather, Thursday morning — after losing to the Rangers, 2-1, in Game 3 of their best-of-seven series. It was the third-longest playoff game in franchise history. It kept children up past their bedtime, forced Metro to run past its closing time, and left both teams battered and bleeding.

“Half the players on the ice had blood on their uniforms before it was over,” Brooks Laich — himself sporting a fresh cut on the bridge of his nose — said afterward in a fuggy and quiet room. “It’s a grinding game.”

That’s a nice way of putting it. It was a defensive battle of wills that turned into a defensive battle of survival. It was hard-hitting but not dirty. It wasn’t pretty but the goals took on a certain last-call attractiveness simply by being so hard to come by.

The goaltenders were incredible. New York’s Henrik Lundqvist stopped 45 of 46 shots; Braden Holtby of the Caps stopped 47 of 49. Both played 114 minutes 37 seconds. Of course, Lundqvist is a veteran and Holtby is a rookie, but it was hard to make that distinction for 114 minutes 36 seconds, so evenly matched were they.

Pucks bounced off crossbars, pads, even faces. The Rangers blocked 41 shots, the Caps 40. The Rangers won 49 percent of their faceoffs; the Caps 51 percent.

The difference? The Rangers got a power-play goal; the Caps failed on three opportunities. That, and the final score.

“We had our chances,” said Matt Hendricks, who admitted afterward he had never been more tired after a game. “We had some really good opportunities, a couple of posts. We just didn’t find the back of the net and they got the last bounce, so it’s what we expected against the Rangers. We expected this tight checking hockey.”

By the third overtime, both teams were visibly slowing, although when the puck neared the crease at either end, it was like a temporary whiff of smelling salts. Everyone’s play sharpened, especially Holtby’s and Lundqvist’s.

“Holts was good,” Laich said. “He’s calm in the net. He doesn’t give out many rebounds.”

No, he doesn’t. Wednesday-slash-Thursday, his method of choice seemed to be to deflect shots anywhere he could. He showed incredible fortitude for his tender age, during and after the game.

“My job is to stop pucks and to win games,” he said. “I believe if I focus on every shot and play to the best of my abilities, with the group we have, I am confident that we will win four games out of seven.”

He’s got moxie, that kid. Of course, he’s 22. Lundqvist is 30, and with age comes wisdom. And pain.

“I think my entire body is just tired right now,” Lundqvist said. “I just want to lay down and relax and get a massage. My neck is hurting. It’s just a great feeling. . . . That’s the toughest thing — it’s in your head. After the fourth period I think it’s all in your head. It’s not so much your technique or your physique — it’s just ‘how much can you push yourself?’”

(After hockey, Lundqvist has a future as an instructor at the most dreaded spinning class in history.)

Unlike Lundqvist, Laich didn’t call for a masseuse. That may just be the difference between being a Swede and a Canadian, or it may be that Laich is just not a dwell-on-it type of guy. He was already downplaying the toll of the long night’s journey into morning and denying this loss would have any impact beyond the drive home.

“Not mentally,” he said. “We’ll park it. Physically it took a lot out of both teams. We still had guys who had some jump.”

Uh-huh. That’s not a theory that will be tested Thursday. The Caps will get the day off to sleep, receive treatment, stitches, psychotherapy, whatever it takes. The two-day break between games just got a lot shorter, and both teams will need every minute of it to prepare. After all, there’s every reason to suspect Game 4 will be yet another grind.

For previous columns by Tracee Hamilton, see washingtonpost.com/hamilton.

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