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Despite Loss, Tangible Gains

The Washington Post's Jason La Canfora reports on the Capitals' 3-2 overtime loss to Philadelphia in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.Audio: Jason La Canfora/The Washington PostPhotos: Jonathan Newton and John McDonnell/The Washington PostEditor: Jonathan Forsythe/washingtonpost.com

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By Jason La Canfora
Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The game had all the hallmarks of Washington Capitals playoff hockey: The requisite controversial penalty calls, an opposition goal that could have been overturned, far too many wasted scoring opportunities and too much drama for some to take.

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The Capitals had battled back from that adversity, as they have all season, coming from behind and forcing overtime in the seventh game of a first-round series with the Philadelphia Flyers, surviving with the guts of their grinders on the penalty kill and the continued moments of brilliance from young stars Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. But in the end last night, for all of the franchise's undeniable progress the past six months, and the prospects for a bright future, this playoff series ended in the same crushing fashion as so many before it.

There were so many opportunities for the Capitals to win in the waning minutes of regulation, but those shots almost always seem to take a wayward path this time of year. There would be no reprise of Dale Hunter's breakaway overtime goal against the Flyers in Game 7 from 20 years ago -- the Capitals' only Game 7 win in their history. There is so much to savor from this season -- and even from last night's game -- yet the final result was lacking, as the Capitals went down, 3-2 in overtime at Verizon Center.

But unlike years past, the sellout crowd -- stunned for a moment from the immediacy that, suddenly, it was all over -- began to mount a wave of applause. Gradually, it grew, morphing into a standing ovation of sorts, acknowledging the tangible gains the fans had seen firsthand, watching the Capitals climb from the cellar of the Eastern Conference to become Southeast Division champions.

"I just told them they gave me the best year of my life," Coach Bruce Boudreau said as his players shed their equipment for the final time this season.

Even last night, it probably all should have come crashing down much sooner, in the final four minutes of the first period. For most teams, let alone an outfit as young as Washington's, the daunting task of killing off four minutes of penalties to close that period -- including a full two minutes of a two-man disadvantage -- might have started an awful tailspin.

The Capitals had just surrendered an early one-goal lead when Sergei Fedorov -- by far their most experienced player and a vaunted penalty killer -- headed to the box for four minutes, drawing blood on Scott Upshall's face with a high stick. Then, Dave Steckel, another key penalty killer, was whistled for a suspect hooking call, and the Flyers had a two-man advantage.

As the crowd screamed invectives about the officials, grinders such as Boyd Gordon and Matt Bradley and Matt Cooke threw themselves in front of the puck with abandon. Boudreau could not have imagined a scenario where, after one period in the biggest game of a storybook season, Gordon would have played more minutes than Ovechkin, for instance, or that Cooke would have taken two more shifts than Alexander Semin. But that's what transpired, and more controversy loomed.

The Flyers took the lead midway through the game, when winger Patrick Thoresen toppled Washington defenseman Shaone Morrisonn into goalie Cristobal Huet, sending the goalie well out of his crease and leaving Sami Kapanen a wide-open net. The goal could have been negated for goaltender interference, but it stood.

"I didn't think it should have counted," Boudreau said.

"From the bench, it looked like blatantly obvious goaltender interference," defenseman Tom Poti said.

Ovechkin tied the game with a blistering shot -- the kind of play only he could make -- but that next goal never came, a problem that has plagued the Capitals franchise for the better part of its 34 years. Washington came ever so close to winning it late in regulation, then, true to form last night, faced the first penalty kill of overtime, with Poti called for tripping. Boudreau did not dispute this call, though Poti did, vehemently. "I got 100 percent puck," he said. "It's tough enough to beat the Flyers, let alone the officials."

Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, trying to remaining as objective as possible, asserted that no one play settled the series, but this was his second taste of a series ending on a rare overtime power play (Martin St. Louis scored in triple overtime in 2003 to clinch Tampa Bay's elimination of Washington in six games). "You've just got to fight through it," Leonsis said. "That's the hand you're dealt."

Some Capitals fans, no doubt, flashed back to John MacLean's Game 7 winner for New Jersey in the second round in 1988, which appeared to be offside. And visions of opposing forwards such as Martin Straka (in overtime, 2001), or Pat LaFontaine (four overtimes, 1987) dancing around as Washington's season died, are never far from the minds of Capitals fans come playoff time. (The Capitals are 8-17 all-time at home in Games 5 through 7 of a series.)

There is every reason to believe that tide is changing, and that eventually a much different playoff reputation will be forged. Ovechkin nearly lifted the team to the second round, and a cast of rising stars, all 24 or younger, came ever so far over just seven games, just not quite far enough.

"We have unbelievable team," Ovechkin said. "It was great experience for us to be in playoffs. I think we deserved more."

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