The End Comes Quick
So, in the end, we waited seven games for eight seconds.
That's all it took. A Capitals season that built its drama for eight months, and brought an entire city, much of it populated by hockey agnostics, along for the jubilant ride, had the air taken out of it in less time than it takes to say, "Did the Penguins just score again?"
A Game 7 that was anticipated as the sine qua non of hockey superstar theater, with Alex Ovechkin's Caps in a showdown of showmen with Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby, was deflated in a blink. The first Pens goal came on one of Crosby's lizard-tongue flick-in goals on the Caps' doorstep at 12 minutes 36 seconds of the first period.
Before the Caps, especially 21-year-old goalie Simeon Varlamov, could collect their wits, the rookie had let a Penguin wrist shot skip between his skates for a soft goal.
After that, the deluge -- a 5-0 Pens lead, an eventual 6-2 Pens win and a game as boring, at least to those who came to roar in red, as the previous six were superb. "Definitely anticlimactic," said Coach Bruce Boudreau in the night's understatement.
Those two scores, the second coming so fast that the PA announcer hadn't even told the crowd who'd scored the first goal, fulfilled many ominous purposes. They silenced the crowd, emboldened the Pens after their Game 6 home loss, and, worst of all, crumpled young Varly. The Russian rookie had been the hero of the previous dozen games, and he may fill that role for a dozen more years.
But in the opening 2:12 of the second period, both Bill Guerin and Kris Letang lit the lamp behind Varlamov on shots like many he's been saving for a month. "He stole many games for us," the Caps' Chris Clark said. "He's the reason we got here."
Too bad, but hardly sad. He'll be back. The memory of a Game 7 win against the Rangers should help. Wisely, Boudreau pulled him at 4-0 before any more damage could be done to a psyche on which the Caps may depend for many springs. His expression blank, but with shock rather than his customary calm, Varlamov left the ice to an ovation that should be his dominant memory from a night to forget.
"After the third goal . . . he looked really dejected," Boudreau said. "And then after the fourth goal, I think the wind completely came out of his sails emotionally. He's done so much. . . . It just poured out of him.
"I wish I had maybe [made a change] one goal sooner."
This was coming, this deluge of goals, building like a storm. It wasn't inevitable. Even over a seven-game series, you can defy the probabilities, get beaten on the ice but still find a way to win. Hockey has a larger element of the random, the good bounce, the unpredictable deflection, the hot goalie, than any of our other sports.
But don't bet on it.