By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 14, 2009
Throughout a season that began last October, Verizon Center hummed consistently and exploded more than occasionally because the home team, the Washington Capitals, won so often and in such enthralling fashion. Last night, their red-clad fans had every reason to believe another victory was possible, even probable, in Washington's biggest hockey game in more than a decade. A victory would have extended the season at least another week, and have kept the arena on F Street jumping.
Yet just after 8 last night, not even halfway through that very game, the most energetic place in town sat hushed, library-like. The Pittsburgh Penguins, who had spent the past two weeks co-authoring a riveting series, simply throttled the Capitals, ending their season with a 6-2 decision in the seventh and deciding game of the National Hockey League's Eastern Conference semifinals.
Thus, there will not be another series. There will be no more how-did-he-do-that moments for star Alex Ovechkin. And there will be no Stanley Cup, hockey's top prize, for the Capitals, who have never won a championship.
"It was definitely anticlimactic," Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "It certainly wasn't the way I would have envisioned it, scripted it. Whether we won or lost, I would never have thought it would have ended up in a game like it was tonight."
Indeed, there was no way to predict such a lopsided outcome. Ovechkin, the Capitals' 23-year-old Russian star, and Sidney Crosby, his 21-year-old Penguins counterpart from Nova Scotia, had matched the almost unmatchable pre-series hype, chatter that built them up as bitter rivals. The two teams had played six games, five of them decided by a single goal. Seventh and deciding games, too, normally roil stomachs and induce sweat because they are enhanced by the enmity that builds throughout so many games involving such taut competition.
Yet this game fell more than flat. The Penguins -- helped by the first of two goals by Crosby -- led 5-0 midway through the second period. When Ovechkin finally scored, it barely mattered.
"It's very disappointing and upsetting, because the team out there tonight, that wasn't our team," Capitals forward Brooks Laich said. "That's not what we call 'Caps hockey.' It just came at a really bad time for us.
"I don't know what it was. Maybe we were just afraid to take charge and get it done. Winning is a science. You have to learn how to do it."
Now, the Capitals have a summer -- and another 82-game regular season -- to see if they can learn further about winning in the playoffs. The blow is a serious one for Capitals fans, who have rallied around their young team at unprecedented levels, not only selling out Verizon Center for every game of the playoffs -- 18,277 fans, the vast majority dressed in red, packed every section last night -- but buying all available season tickets for next year as well. The Capitals had provided them with a stirring comeback from a three-games-to-one deficit in the first round, in which they dispatched the New York Rangers, and then followed by winning the first two games against the Penguins.
That commanding lead, though, was frittered away with three straight losses, including two heart-wrenching affairs in overtime in which the Penguins scored the winning goals on deflections off the sticks of Capitals defenders. The pain from those losses is now added to last night -- and then thrown on top of Washington's history with the Penguins as a franchise. The teams have met eight times in the postseason; Pittsburgh has won seven of those series.
"That was a very positive season, but we're not happy we lost," Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said outside the team's hushed locker room. "There will be time for reflection, but not now. The Penguins are a good team. They played better than us, and they deserved to win."
As successful as the Capitals' season was -- they won their second straight Southeast Division title -- their elimination now leaves a gaping hole in the District's sports scene. None of Washington's major professional teams -- the Capitals, basketball's Wizards, baseball's Nationals (who arrived in 2005) or football's Redskins -- have advanced past the second round of the playoffs since the Capitals' run to the Stanley Cup finals in 1998.
Now, the spring leaves no Capitals and no Wizards, who had qualified for the playoffs for four straight years but finished with the worst record in the NBA's Eastern Conference this past season. The Nationals began their season with seven straight losses and again have the worst record in the major leagues, a year after losing 102 games in becoming baseball's worst team. And the Redskins collapsed last season, losing six of their last eight games to miss the playoffs, then created a stir in the offseason by trying to trade starting quarterback Jason Campbell but failing to do so, thus leaving one of their key players disillusioned.
Campbell was among those in the Verizon Center crowd last night, wearing a Nationals hat as he witnessed the disaster on the ice. Even when Ovechkin scored, late in the second period, he skated meekly to the bench and did not go down the line, bumping hands with his teammates, as he normally does. The buzz was gone; the hum, now nil.
"I don't know what happened," Ovechkin said.
Still, with two minutes remaining in the game, and the two teams doing little more than skating around as the clock wound down, the thousands who remained in their seats rose and cheered, saluting the Capitals for a season of work. Afterward, the Capitals players, as their last act, remained on the ice and raised their sticks to the crowd.
"If you lose in the second round, Game 7, and they give your team a standing ovation for two minutes," Leonsis said, "that's a sure sign that fans love the team, know that we've arrived, and we'll get right back at it."