This is more than a concern, more than a beat-down in a win-or-go-home game. This is a fear, and the fear is this: Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green are going to wake up one day and realize they look more like old maids than young guns, and their NHL careers are going to be a monument to unfulfilled promise.
They can write some of this Game 7 eyesore off to a superior goalie, and Henrik Lundqvist was every bit of that, repelling every point-blank puck rifled at the goal, twice in 48 magnificent hours. They can write this off to a new coach like Adam Oates finally getting his system installed in a hurry-up-and-play lockout season. They can even reason that an underperforming New York Rangers team that a lot of hockey people felt could win the Stanley Cup in January finally showed up like that team when it mattered.
But what the three core Capitals players can’t write off is their shared history in May, the fact that three of the most gifted players in the NHL not only don’t have an Eastern Conference finals appearance between them, they’ve got two first-round-and-outs now in the past four years, this one by virtual knockout.
Karl Alzner, another veteran who has been through the playoff grinder here, was asked if he ever thought about whether the Caps could get over the hump after another loss like Monday night.
“Funny you ask that,” he said. “A little bit. I don’t know if that’s the right mentality. I’m sure it’s not the right mentality. But we all play this game to win and when you see one year after another year disappointments — and I know it’s only been three playoffs for me. Still, from the guys that have played the game, Mike Knuble, one of the guys, would tell us that, ‘You blink and the next thing you know you’re in last couple of years and you haven’t made it to the finals even. You don’t want to see the time tick away. You want to at least get a taste of it before you’re done.’ So I hopefully have a long time. But, yeah, I’ve thought about it.”
Five-zip? The guys who had home ice again in Game 7 lost badly, reminiscent of their blowout loss to Pittsburgh in 2009 during the second round, when Verizon Center was turned into a mausoleum by the middle of the second period.
It got so bad at 3-0 in that second, forgettable period that the game-operations crew actually felt the need to break out the inspirational video montage usually saved for the game’s final minutes — because they knew damn well it was going to be too late in the third.
How to explain the way the fury with which the Capitals came out turned into nothingness midway through the most monumental game of their season?
This may be about the Capitals’ organizational meltdowns — they lost a 2-0 series lead for the fifth time since 1987 Monday night — for some of the die-hard, old loyalists. But it wasn’t for Ovechkin, Backstrom and Green. It was actually worse because it was affirmed yet again they still don’t have whatever that missing ingredient is to get over the top in the postseason.
And here’s the worst part: It sounded like they understood going out like this wasn’t acceptable anymore, didn’t it?
Remember what they told us before the 99-night, 48-game shoehorn of a season started in January. Here are some actual quotes I remember hearing that day:
Ovechkin: “Me, Back, the guys that have been here, we don’t feel like young kids anymore. We feel like we have unfinished business. We want to get something done.”
And Green, in a rare candid moment: “I think as we’ve matured, we’ve become closer as a pack and more driven towards [the Stanley Cup] goal. But with that being said, we gotta go out and execute and do it. It’s been a long time waiting. I think we’ve had too good of a team not to win it in the last while. So now’s our time.”
Look, Green was good in this series. And this sport is so unforgiving. One bang-bang play can change the momentum so much. Green was part of that in the first period.
As the barrage on Lundqvist to begin the first period seemed over, Green suddenly broke free by his lonesome, a golden chance to finally rattle the indomitable Rangers goalie who hadn’t given up a goal in almost 72 hours — since overtime of Game 5 on Friday night. How long ago does that seem now?
And here was Green, barreling in on a breakaway, ready to send the building into a state of delirium. Lundqvist stoned him, Arron Asham went the other way and the fourth-liner beat Braden Holtby, who is going to have nightmares about this game the entire offseason, for the game’s first pivotal score.
It was reminiscent of Marc-Andre Fleury stopping an Ovechkin breakway in the first period of Game 7 against the Penguins here in 2009. I still believe if Ovechkin had put that puck home, Pittsburgh doesn’t go on to rout Washington that day.
The fine line between euphoria and depression had the Capitals on the wrong side again. And while the coaches and goalies change, there are only a few constants on the ice — save their individual awards and accomplishments, it’s the Undecorated Big Three.
It all feels so depressingly familiar, almost like walking down a street, hoping the neighborhood has changed — oblivious to the fact a manhole cover has been removed seconds before you fall through in utter agony.
You walk down the same street the next year and fall through again, same time, every May.
Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green are going to realize at some point they need to try another block, another avenue.
Now they are lamenting losing four Game 7s in five years — three on their home ice, two when they were up 2-0 in a series.
Asham this year. Joffrey Lupul in 2008. It’s always some other player, finding a nook or cranny to ruin their season.
This isn’t a catastrophe like Montreal in 2010. As a franchise, Washington is still in good stead. For one, Oates isn’t leaving to coach a junior team in Ontario tomorrow; he did a fine job of coming in after Dale Hunter and getting the primary playmakers to buy in and listen because, well, he actually talked.
But each year the nucleus of the team, especially Ovechkin, doesn’t take the next step, the pressure to advance in May increases and the burden becomes greater. At some point, if they can’t move past this rut, they’re going to look behind them and realize no one wants to walk down that same street anymore with them — too dangerous for the mind and body.
For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.