By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 29, 2010; A01
Alex Ovechkin took a knee on the Verizon Center ice Wednesday night, stunned, drained, silent -- mirroring the thousands of fans who filled the stands around him. The scene at the opposite end of the ice -- the Montreal Canadiens celebrating a first-round playoff victory over Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals -- would have seemed unfathomable only a week ago.
Back then, the Capitals had firm control of the series. Hockey deep into the spring seemed probable. The sport's ultimate prize, the Stanley Cup, seemed possible.
But Wednesday, in a fashion that left some eyes in the home locker room reddened, a season full of promise ended with a 2-1 loss in the seventh and deciding game of the opening round of the postseason, a result that will almost certainly be remembered -- even if the Capitals go on to win a championship in the future -- as one of the most difficult in franchise history.
"I don't have words to say," Ovechkin said afterward, and he paused to compose himself.
It was a popular theme -- in the Capitals locker room, in the stands, among groups of the team's fans gathered at homes and bars around the Washington region.
"If someone came to your work and stepped on your desk or punched you in the head, that's how it feels," Capitals forward Jason Chimera said. "We come in for a long playoff run, and it doesn't happen. It's tough right now."
It's fair to say no Capitals team ever entered the playoffs with more expected of it than this one. The team's development in recent years has fostered a fan base that has rapidly become rabid, filling both Verizon Center and, particularly in the playoffs, area bars with supporters who dress in the jerseys not only of Ovechkin, a bona fide star, but of relatively obscure role players.
Led by Ovechkin -- who has won the National Hockey League's most valuable player award two consecutive years and is one of the favorites again this season -- Washington easily posted both the best regular season record in the league and the best in franchise history. They scored goals in bunches, sometimes seemingly at will. And when they won two games in hockey-obsessed Montreal last week, all they needed was to take one of the next three to advance.
So the night began with an air of nervous anticipation, because even as the series started to slip away with losses Friday at home and Monday in Montreal, the Capitals could have extended the season. Wednesday's game drew the kind of crowd only seventh and deciding games merit -- sprinkled with celebrities of varying degrees, from former Capitals great Rod Langway to current Redskins Chris Cooley and Mike Sellers, all the way up to Vice President Biden. Fans also packed area bars because, as 26-year-old Pam Kalinowski from Springfield said as she watched at the Front Page in Arlington, "I felt like this was their year."
There were also reasons to believe Wednesday would be their night. No top seed had squandered a three-games-to-one lead in the opening round, and the Capitals had lost three games in a row just once during the regular season.
"You're up with a 3-1 lead in the series, and there's no way you're going to drop three straight, you know?" Capitals veteran Mike Knuble said afterward.
But as Montreal goaltender Jaroslav Halak made save after save, Verizon Center grew unusually quiet for long stretches, anxiety and tension overtaking the optimistic sense of expectation that this team normally engenders. Suddenly, the Capitals -- who scored more than one goal in 79 of 82 regular season games -- struggled to score. And some of the normal staples of a night at Verizon Center -- full-on "Let's Go Caps!" chants -- became more difficult to drum up and then sustain.
The crowd tried to remain optimistic, and when the final period began, with the Capitals trailing 1-0, the fans stood and bellowed, urging the team on. Less than 30 seconds in, Ovechkin unleashed a wicked shot that beat Halak, and the building erupted.
In the stands above the ice, brothers Chris and Phillip Dupy embraced.
"First time we hugged in 10 years," said Phillip, who lives in Rockville.
"I was like, 'Okay, now we got a chance,' " added Chris, of Germantown. "Game on!"
The joy immediately dissipated. A referee signaled that the goal, which would have tied the score, would be disallowed.
At the Front Page, Kalinowski yelled, "What?! Why?" She stood, with both arms extended, confused.
The answer: Knuble was ruled to be illegally in the small area in front of the net reserved for the goaltender. The goal did not count, Montreal held the lead, and the summer grew closer still.
"Everything kind of deflated," Chris Dupy said.
As time ticked down, Capitals fans inside and out of the arena grew increasingly tense.
"Don't worry," disc jockey Lyndon "Smoky" Lansdowne told the crowd at the Front Page as young women walked by him nervously. "This is their period. We'll get one by him."
Others at the bar weren't so sure. Mike Harbaugh of Arlington, who led his section in obscenities, said he already had been looking forward to a matchup with rival Pittsburgh later in the playoffs. He will not get one.
"We started out really strong, but ended up so weak," Harbaugh said. "So weak."
When Montreal scored with less than four minutes remaining to go up 2-0, some of the red-clad fans started heading up the aisles of Verizon Center to the exits. But when Brooks Laich scored just over a minute later for Washington, some of those same fans turned and re-claimed their seats.
In the end, though, there was only that scene -- the Canadiens hugging, the Capitals, many of them bent at the waist and skating slowly and aimlessly -- to think about over the summer. Ovechkin and a few others eventually raised their sticks to the crowd in thanks. They won't appear in the building again till October.
Some fans, including Chris Dupy, remained in the stands, staring blankly at the ice.
"It's over," he said. "Now it just set in. There's no more tomorrow. There's no more talks of next round. No more hockey for the Capitals fans."