Once again, the Washington Capitals have been condemned to spend a summer thinking about what might have been.
Two goals by Pierre Larouche and a spectacular 27-save effort by John Vanbiesbrouck carried the New York Rangers to a 2-1 victory over the Capitals tonight. That gave the Patrick Division final series of the National Hockey League playoffs to the underdog Rangers, four games to two.
It was a shocking result, as Washington finished 29 points ahead of New York during the regular season and came into this series buoyed by the emotion of a three-game sweep of the Islanders.
"I'm much more disappointed tonight," said Washington winger Gaetan Duchesne. "This was the year we had a good chance. We beat the Islanders and took that monkey off our back. When the New York Rangers beat the Flyers, we were thinking maybe we had a chance to go all the way.
"We came into the series with confidence and I think we're the better team. But they're very disciplined and won those two games in overtime. That was what hurt us."
Although they lost some composure in dropping the fifth game at Capital Centre Friday, the Capitals played their usual tough defensive game tonight and created some scoring chances. Vanbiesbrouck foiled them.
"Playing tonight was easy," Larouche said. "We had so much confidence with Johnny back there. I just happened to be the guy who scored the two goals."
One goal came at the finish of a remarkable play by rookie Mike Ridley. The other followed a catch and drop by Larouche in front of the Washington net. It turned out to be enough as the Capitals, who four times blew two-goal leads in this series, were unable to make up a two-goal deficit.
"We asked our guys for an honest night's work and we thought if we got it, we'd win the hockey game," said Washington Coach Bryan Murray. "We got a great effort and we didn't win . . . Tonight, Vanbiesbrouck was the story, along with Larouche."
Bob Carpenter produced Washington's only goal on a third-period power play to cut the lead to 2-1. Although more than 14 minutes remained, the Capitals had few chances down the stretch because of New York's excellent forechecking.
Washington removed goalie Pete Peeters for a sixth skater with 40 seconds left, but the swarming Rangers prevented any kind of a threat to tie. In a symbolic end to the Capitals' hopes, Mike Gartner and teammate Bob Gould collided and fell in the Washington end with 15 seconds remaining.
"I think they had more pressure right after their goal than they had the last seven or eight minutes," said New York defenseman James Patrick. "I think in the last two minutes, five or six of their dumps hit our defensemen."
It was a night of vindication for Larouche, who spent most of the season in minor league Hershey and said he never expected to play for the Rangers again. He was recalled Jan. 25, with 28 games remaining, and scored 20 goals to lead the Rangers into the playoffs with 78 points, two more than Pittsburgh.
"They the Capitals are a great team, outstanding," Larouche said. "You don't get 108 points actually 107 in this league without being a good team day in and day out. I feel sorry for them, but I prefer to be in my shoes right now."
Larouche, who had five goals in the last four games of this series, opened the scoring at 12:36 of the first period.
Ridley was carrying the puck over the Washington blue line on what appeared to be a routine two-on-two when he suddenly poked the puck between the legs of defender Greg Smith and raced past Smith to get it back. Ridley broke close to Peeters and at the last moment flipped the puck to Larouche on his left for a tap-in.
"When I saw it on replay, I looked like I was already past the net," Larouche said. "Mike hit my stick and I flipped it past him [Peeters]. It was that simple."
That was the only score of the first two periods, although the Capitals had several good chances in the second 20 minutes.
Gartner was sent in alone by Carpenter and flipped a backhander at Vanbiesbrouck, who blocked it. The goalie went down and smothered Carpenter's rebound.
Later, Carpenter pounced on a rebound after Vanbiesbrouck blocked his initial shot and flipped the puck over the goalie. It struck the left post, caromed through the crease and slid out of danger.
When Duchesne made a fine feed from behind the net, Scott Stevens fired a tough backhander that Vanbiesbrouck kicked away with his right skate. The frustrated Stevens then cross-checked the goalie into the net and was penalized.
"The last game was the first game Vanbiesbrouck was a major factor and he certainly played well enough to be another key element tonight," Gartner said. "We played well in this series, but we let things slip away in certain situations and we weren't able to get them back."
Early in the third period, Wilf Paiement's centering pass from the right wing corner wound up on net and Peeters swept the puck away. Ridley got it and shot wide, with Capitals defenseman Larry Murphy deflecting the puck in the air. Larouche knocked it down with his glove, then rapped it past Peeters' left pad at 0:34.
"I just caught it and whacked at it," Larouche said.
A slashing penalty to Reijo Ruotsalainen gave the Capitals an opening and they took advantage. Carpenter banged a rebound of a Murphy shot off the left arm of the fallen Vanbiesbrouck and into the net.
Nevertheless, the Capitals wound up offering congratulations amid the din created by 17,367 delirious fans to a New York team that had been tabbed for nothing but cannon fodder, then surprised by edging Patrick Division champion Philadelphia in five games.
Vanbiesbrouck equaled the all-time Rangers goaltending record of 38 victories in a season set by Ed Giacomin in 1967-68. He has ample time to break it, with the Rangers next playing either Montreal or Hartford for the Prince of Wales Conference championship in a best-of-seven series opening Thursday.
"What an emotional game that was," Vanbiesbrouck said. "It was an intense, deafening feeling out there. It was bedlam. I've never heard anything like that in my life. I think personally I had to play everything out of my mind. I had to come out like it was Game 1."
"This wasn't a script and it wasn't luck," said New York Coach Ted Sator. "It was a collective effort by a team. Larouche played a tremendous series. When he sets his mind on anything, on or off the ice, he can do anything."
The Capitals, often accused of being unable to win a big game, were left to contemplate the fact that in four seasons as a playoff team, they never have won a game in which they faced elimination.
"It's hard to swallow," Murray said. "This was the greatest chance in the history of the franchise. With Philly and Quebec knocked out, we knew that whoever won this division had a heck of a chance to win the Stanley Cup."