By Mike Wise
Thursday, April 29, 2010; D01
In the end, they teased everyone.
Their crowd, so emotionally invested after 54 victories and a gaudy 313 goals -- 45 more than any other NHL team between October and the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The hockey establishment, all the smartest and brightest who picked the Capitals to win it all because of how they almost sparkled when they scored, won big and had a penchant for coming back.
Their coach, who arrived from Hershey about 2 1/2 years ago in near disbelief that Alex Ovechkin was suddenly his to groom, along with three other young stars barely old enough to legally drink.
The worst part is, the Capitals players had themselves believing they had the team, the talent and enough ornery players to tap in the puck when the supernovas couldn't.
They actually had convinced each other they could bring one of the four North American major team-sport championships to Washington for the first time since the Redskins last won the Super Bowl in 1992.
And they kept the façade going until the very end, managing to ignite a flickering, hope-against-hope crowd. Taking in the jeers and boos after Montreal made it 2-0 in the final three minutes, the Caps narrowed the lead by a goal, furiously trying to force an extra period.
Incredibly, after all of Jaroslav Halak's otherworldly play in net the past three games, they had their chances in the final seconds -- toying with the masses again.
Jason Chimera floated in on the right wing for the tie. Ovie fired away, one last time.
One and done? Implausibly, almost incomprehensibly, yes.
"If someone came to your work and stepped on your desk or punched you in the head, that's how I feel," said a rocked Chimera, who had overtime on his stick before he lifted the puck over the crossbar in the Caps' last, best chance. "You came for a long playoff run, and it doesn't happen. It's tough. Right now it's weird."
It's not weird; it's wrong.
A flammable goalie is going to get most of the credit for their sudden demise, the first time a No. 8 seed has ever rebounded from a three-games-to-one deficit to knock off a No. 1 seed. But on the night of their worst flameout of the Bruce Boudreau era, the Capitals need to be honest and look beyond the incomparable play of Halak.
Taken out by the team in the playoffs with the worst regular season record cannot just end with, "We ran into a hot goalie. It happens."
Nuh-uh. They don't get off that easy. Not after this series they just threw away.
All the numbers in the world to bolster that claim for the Caps -- how they outshot and outplayed the Canadiens in much of the last two games but just could not solve Halak, who amazingly stopped 131 of his last 134 shots in the series -- don't work Thursday morning.
Shockingly, this Cup-or-bust franchise is now dispersing to different parts of the globe to inexplicably watch the rest of the NHL playoffs.
They need instead to think hard about why such a talented offensive machine, with unquestionably the game's most dynamic player, has now lost three of four Game 7s on its home ice. They need to figure out how a better, stronger unit a year after the Penguins took them out in seven games could not even make it to the second round this season.
Ovechkin, as the captain, needs to call out his countryman, Alexander Semin, now scoreless in his last 14 playoff games. Semin has been mostly a downtrodden drag on and off the ice recently.
Ovie needs to have a real talk with Mike Green, language barrier or not, and say, in no uncertain terms, "You let us down this series. That penalty in the first period led to the first goal for Montreal. There is no excuse for not playing better the past two weeks. No wonder you didn't make the Canadian national team and some people think it's a crime you're a Norris Trophy finalist this season. Your play made them think that way."
They all need to look at the self-inflicted damage that led to this stunning exit in the first round.
Including Boudreau. Let's stop any talk that Gabby should be fired for his team's inability to close out the Canadiens. No one in their right mind should get rid of a savvy, hockey lifer who just guided the Caps to the Presidents' Trophy.
But the coach should ask himself this: Video-game stats and all, can an up-tempo, Disney-on-ice, offensive juggernaut really win in the postseason?
Or are the Caps merely that run-and-gun NBA team -- pick an era with Phoenix, Dallas or Golden State -- that gets clamped down by tougher, more physical teams when it matters?
And when Jacques Marten mucked up the game in the middle of the ice, using that neutral-zone trap to take away the usual choreography and the setting-up of Washington's scoring chances, was there really a Plan B for Boudreau other than "Go to the crease. Make something happen."
Or is that too much amateur Gabby psychology, and does General Manager George McPhee have to answer a few hard ones?
Such as, was this merely the unmasking of the Caps' Achilles' heel all season, its penalty-kill units? No longer able to compensate and hide their deficiencies with their own power-play goals -- the league's most lethal man-up team failed to convert 32 of 33 power-play chances in the series -- they were reduced to what they were: defensively flawed.
The acquisitions of Mike Knuble, Scott Walker, Eric Belanger and Jason Chimera brought depth and grit. But were they enough? Could one Bill Guerin-like player have been better than them all?
Those are hard questions to answer in hindsight, because the Caps had so many golden chances the past two games. If just one of those final shots goes in Wednesday night, they're forcing overtime and sending the Verizon into a tizzy again.
But the results are plain: Semin and Green, who came into the game 0 for their last 55 shots, were bottled up. Ovie was good and great at times, but too often, when he became the focal point of the Canadiens' scheme, no one but Nicklas Backstrom or someone in the crease seemed capable of creating a genuine scoring opportunity. If he doesn't hurry and hoist something besides another Hart Trophy, he's A-Rod or Wilt the Stilt in training, pre-championships.
The Caps were pressing from the beginning, trying anything -- almost in a hurry to get on the board. Until the frantic third period and the desperation that clearly showed, there almost seemed no sense of urgency in the middle of the game.
Midway through the second period, a sort of purgatory had almost set in -- the players trading shifts and sloppy puck-handling -- everyone in limbo, waiting for someone to change the course of the night.
The familiar chant, "Let's Go Caps," started at 10:48 of the second period in section 414. It caught fire momentarily, made its way around the arena once, and then died just as quickly.
The crowd came to life at the outset of the third, standing and hollering in a sustained ovation that was not even prompted by the Jumbotron or the team's marketing department. Authentic hope, finally.
They were ready to believe, for at least 20 more minutes of this once-stupendous season that now closes with such a whimper.
Now, 30 minutes after the end, all that is left is the sound of the Zamboni laboring up ice after the arena has been cleared -- and a teen-ager in Capitals gear cruising behind, stick-handling the puck after the pipes and netting have already been put away.
None of it seems real. This season of infinite hope has expired and it's not even May. As you watch that impressionable kid round the rink before the ice is put away for the summer, the only thought left is this:
They cruelly teased him too.