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Capitals-Penguins Game 7 best and worst: Washington’s season comes to an all-too-familiar end

The Capitals struggled to find the net in Tuesday’s 2-0 loss in Game 7. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
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Here are the best and worst moments from the Capitals’ 2-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 7, eliminating Washington from the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Worst curtains: For the second consecutive year, the Capitals won the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s best regular season team, only to be eliminated by the Penguins in the second round. The Rock the Red Era as we know it is over, because with several key players’ contracts expiring, the team surrounding Alex Ovechkin is destined to look very different next season. Add another chapter to the Capitals’ encyclopedia of playoff disappointments. Next spring will mark 20 years since Washington last advanced to the third round. Maybe next year will be different …said every Capitals fan for the past four decades.

Best goalie: Braden Holtby was no slouch, with 26 saves on 28 shots, including several in the third period that kept Washington within striking distance. Marc-Andre Fleury was better, turning aside all 29 shots he faced after having allowed eight goals in his previous four periods.

Different season, same story: Capitals eliminated by Penguins in Game 7

Worst nemesis: The dang Penguins. The Capitals are now 1-9 all-time against Pittsburgh in postseason series, including four Game 7 losses. The Penguins overcame a pair of three-games-to-one deficits to beat Washington in 1992 and 1995. It seemed the Capitals might get their revenge and exorcise one of their postseason demons 22 years later, but it wasn’t to be.

Best fake holiday: It says here that Thursday is National Eat What You Want Day. Mmmmm, feelings.

Worst urgency: The Capitals were the team in need of an equalizing goal to prolong their season, but you wouldn’t know it from watching the first eight minutes of the third period. Pittsburgh had eight of the first 10 shots in the frame, scored a goal and rang another shot off the post on a power play that came after Holtby made yet another save on an odd-man rush. Washington finished with six shots in the third period.

Best diversion: All aboard the Wizards’ bandwagon! D.C.’s basketball team hasn’t been nearly as disappointing in the postseason as the Capitals over the last 20 years, if only because it hasn’t qualified as often. The Wizards lost Game 5 in Boston to fall behind three games to two, but they’re still alive.

Worst turnover: Two minutes after Holtby saved the day with a key save off a turnover, the Penguins made Washington pay for a misplay in the defensive zone. Ovechkin failed to clear the puck and Justin Schultz fed it to Patric Hornqvist, who lifted a backhander over Holtby’s left shoulder and under the crossbar. With 15:46 remaining in regulation and perhaps Washington’s season, Pittsburgh led 2-0.

How the Penguins pushed the Capitals into the playoff abyss yet again in Game 7

Worst $#%@!: So, about that D.C. Sports Troll … In the final four minutes of the second period, the Capitals peppered Fleury with five shots and Nicklas Backstrom put another one under Fleury’s pads and off the post. Pittsburgh also benefited from an early whistle when the referee thought Fleury had the puck covered. (He did not.) Washington outshot Pittsburgh 15-7 in the period, but the visitors scored the only goal.

Best save: Late in the second period, Marc-Andre Fleury denied what looked like a sure goal by Ovechkin with the shaft of his stick.

Worst celebration: Whatever this is.

Worst fury: After Patric Hornqvist was sent off for high-sticking with 9:23 to play in the second period, the Capitals’ in-game entertainment staff fired up the “Unleash the Fury” pump-up video featuring Tom Green that’s normally reserved for the third period. Desperate times cause for desperate measures. Washington unleashed a single shot on goal during its ensuing power play.

Worst prediction?: “First goal wins,” Fancy Stats writer Neil Greenberg said earlier Wednesday. The team that has scored first is 5-1 this series. The only exception was Game 5, when the Capitals overcame 1-0 and 2-1 deficits to win 4-2.

Worst deficit: Midway through the second period, Bryan Rust took the air out of the Verizon Center crowd by roofing a pass from Jake Guentzel past Holtby for a 1-0 Penguins lead. The goal came with 11:11 to play in the frame. Make a wish.

Best takeaway: There wasn’t much action in the first five minutes of the second period, but Ovechkin had a terrific backcheck on Penguins forward Nick Bonino to prevent a Pittsburgh scoring chance. The Capitals’ captain wants this one, and he’s doing the little things to make it happen.

Best costume: The Mets played at 1, so Matt Harvey was able to make it down for Game 7.

Best penalty kill: With 3:54 remaining in the first period, Pittsburgh went on the power play after Tom Wilson tripped Jake Guentzel. The Penguins failed to convert with the man-advantage for the 18th time in 21 chances this series, and the best scoring chances belonged to the Capitals. Washington had three shots on goal while shorthanded, including a slapshot by Matt Niskanen that got lost in Fleury’s equipment. That was more shots than the Capitals had over the previous 14 minutes at even strength.

Best message: During a break in the action, NBC Sports Network’s Pierre McGuire asked Capitals Coach Barry Trotz about his pregame message for his players. “Just enjoy it,” Trotz said. “It’s Game 7. Nothing better than Game 7.” Oh, I can probably think of a few …

Worst cashing in: The Capitals are looking to avoid becoming the first team since 2012 to outshoot its opponent in every game of the series and lose. Twelve minutes into a scoreless first period shots were even at four apiece.

Best turn of events: Seconds after Evgeni Malkin failed to convert on a pseudo-breakaway, shooting the puck wide of Holtby, the Penguins’ forward was whistled for tripping at 5:47 of the first period.

Worst power play: Kevin Shattenkirk hit the post, but the Capitals failed to register a shot on goal on their first power play of the game.

Best chants: The sing-song chants of Marc-Andre Fleury’s surname began shortly after the opening faceoff, and the Capitals didn’t waste any time pressuring the Penguins’ goalie. Fleury’s adventurous trip to play a puck behind the net led to a poor clearing attempt and a golden opportunity for John Carlson. Washington had four shots on goal in the first 2:20 of the game.

Best D.C. sports synergy: On one of the biggest D.C. sports nights in years, the Wizards sent good vibes to the Capitals. Kelly Oubre Jr. and Co. are in Boston for a pivotal Game 5 in their second-round series against the Celtics.

Worst history: You’ve heard it all by now. The Capitals are 4-10 all-time in Game 7, including a 3-7 mark at home. The Penguins are a perfect 5-0 in Game 7 on the road. Something’s gotta give.

Best not-so-secret weapon: Justin Williams, whose freakin’ nickname is Mr. Game 7, plays his first Game 7 with the Caps. Williams has 14 points in seven career Game 7s and his teams are 7-0 in those games. “It’s going to be a fight of will,” Williams said on Wednesday. “And I can tell you one thing: I’m going to give everything I have tonight and make sure I don’t let my teammates down and everyone in this room is going to do the same, and we’ll be fine.”

Worst playoff format and best trend: It’s stupid that the NHL’s two best teams are meeting in the second round, but here we are. NBC Sports Network’s Eddie Olczyk told CSN’s Jill Sorenson that he thinks this could be “an epic game.” He added: “I think Caps fans should be breathing really easy, because they’ve gotten to a Game 7 in their own building, and I’m sure they all want to put the Penguins in the rear-view mirror.” Olczyk apparently doesn’t know Caps fans very well.

Game information

Game 7: Washington Capitals (1st place, 55-19-8, 118 points) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (2nd place, 50-21-11, 111 points)
Date and time: Wednesday, 7:30 p.m.
Channel: NBCSN
Location: Verizon Center
Regular season series: Capitals 2, Penguins 2
Game 1 at Washington: Penguins 3, Capitals 2
Game 2 at Washington: Penguins 6, Capitals 2
Game 3 at Pittsburgh: Capitals 3, Penguins 2 (OT)
Game 4 at Pittsburgh: Penguins 3, Capitals 2
Game 5 at Washington: Capitals 4, Penguins 2
Game 6 at Pittsburgh: Capitals 5, Penguins 2

Latest headlines

>> Game 7s naturally make fans, and particularly Capitals fans, nervous. But fear not: “Mr. Game 7,” Justin Williams, will be navigating the ice Wednesday night at Verizon Center. Capitals fans haven’t gotten the opportunity yet to see Williams in a Game 7 since he was acquired ahead of the 2015-16 season, but in winner-take-all games, he’s a perfect 7-0 with 14 points in those contests. That’s a great reason to feel optimistic, right?

>> Braden Holtby struggled at the start of the Capitals’ second-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, allowing 11 goals on the first 83 shots. But in the past two games, Holtby has become a difference maker in this series — and just in time for the Capitals.

>> It was just days ago that the Penguins were riding high with a seemingly insurmountable 3-1 series lead. Now Pittsburgh finds itself on the ropes against a surging Washington team that has dominated the last two games to even the series. But back at Verizon Center, the reeling Penguins have a chance to sidestep a collapse. “Obviously we have to embrace the moment here,” Penguins forward Patric Hornqvist said.

>> This all seems familiar. Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals again preparing for another gut-wrenching Game 7 against the hated Penguins. Brace yourselves, Washington fans. The Capitals are 4-10 all-time in Game 7s, including a 3-7 mark at home. But don’t tell this year’s team. “This group doesn’t really care what’s happened in the past,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said before Washington closed out the Maple Leafs in six games in the first round, repeating a mantra he’s echoed over the last three seasons. “They really care about what’s happening now. And that’s what’s really important for any group.”

>> Welp, basically everyone is picking the Caps to beat the Penguins in Game 7. Nervous yet, Caps fans?

>> Ted Leonsis owns both the Capitals and the Wizards, and with both in the playoffs, how has his spring been going following his two teams around the country? “It’s been extreme but exciting,” he said.

>> Where were the NHL’s so-called “concussion spotters” in Game 6 when Sidney Crosby careened down the ice in the first period, clipped the side of the Capitals’ net and crashed headfirst — and hard — into the boards? A better question, asks Post columnist Barry Svrluga: Why did Sidney Crosby keep playing Monday night? Crosby didn’t miss a shift, despite being less than a week removed from the league’s concussion protocol.

>> Washington’s football, baseball, basketball and hockey teams are 1 for 86 in reaching the semifinal round in their sports since 1991. None has won a title. But now the ugly old Troll who has haunted D.C. sports is worried. Even trolls have nightmares and his are coming true. The Capitals and Wizards … let’s not say it. But this week may be the Troll’s last stand, writes Tom Boswell.

>> The meeting on May 5, 2017, didn’t feel momentous to Barry Trotz. He just asked one of the greatest goal-scorers in NHL history to play on a third line with Washington’s season on the verge of being extinguished because it could balance out the Capitals’ scoring attack. In what is now a telling picture of Washington’s evolution as a team and Alex Ovechkin’s as a captain, the Capitals enter their most important game of the past two decades with the franchise’s foundational player in reduced role.

>> The Penguins appeared to have everything under control. They held a three-games-to-one lead over the Capitals and the Caps appeared to be scrambling for answers as they tried to avoid elimination. Turns out they found some.

>> The 22-year-old Andre Burakovsky is Washington’s streakiest scorer, so three goals in two games is good news for the Capitals after they forced a Game 7. The rejiggered top line with Burakovsky on it accounted for all three of the team’s even-strength goals, and Burakovsky scored two of them. “Since we made the move, I think the lines have been pretty effective for us,” Barry Trotz said.

>> Wednesday — with a Game 7 for the Caps and a Game 5 for the Wizards — could be the biggest D.C. sports night in forever. And with these Caps, Dan Steinberg thinks if they lose to the Penguins, some fans might never get over it. It would go down among the most disappointing losses in franchise history, which is like saying a Metro delay will go down as among the most frustrating irritants in WMATA history. If the Caps survive this round, they become clear Stanley Cup favorites.

>> So much of Game 6 was a clinic, this 5-2 victory for the Capitals. And because of the style of this performance, here are two realities: Wednesday night’s Game 7 at Verizon Center is the biggest of the Alex Ovechkin era of Washington hockey. And when the puck drops to decide the series, the clear favorite will be the team in red sweaters, writes Barry Svrluga.

>> Exactly a week after Sidney Crosby sustained a concussion in Game 3, he barreled into the boards and lay face down on the ice for a few moments. Following Monday night’s game, however, Penguins Coach Mike Sullivan said Crosby had not been evaluated for a concussion. When Crosby was asked if he was evaluated following that play, the Penguins star said, “Yeah, yeah … Pretty standard.”

>> “I think it’s frustrating when you’ve got an opportunity like this to win a game and win a series at home and you don’t play the way that you’d like; you can get frustrated,” Penguins Coach Mike Sullivan said. “There was a little of frustration, but I thought we talked about making sure that we grab a hold of ourselves and stay focused and just try to play the game the right way. But we just, to a man, we weren’t good enough tonight.” The Caps, meanwhile, uncorked their best performance of the playoffs. Here are the best and worst moments of Game 6. Also, is this guy wearing a “Fire Dan Snyder” shirt the Caps’ good-luck charm?

>> A year ago, Evgeny Kuznetsov struggled under the spotlight, finishing with just one goal and one assist in 12 playoff games, one of the biggest disappointments in another early exit for Washington. In this year’s playoffs, Kuznetsov has five goals and three assists in 11 games, including four in Washington’s second-round series with the Penguins. He again has proved he is the Capitals’ future. Speaking of the future, the Caps know they can’t change their past — so they are focusing on the future.

>> Andre Burakovsky hadn’t been much of a factor in these playoffs, with just two assists in 10 games entering Game 5. All it took for him to break through, however, was a bit of line tinkering by Coach Barry Trotz. Burakovsky made the most of the opportunity Saturday, scoring a first-period goal to keep the Capitals alive early and adding an assist on the game-tying goal in the third period. It was an encouraging sign for Burakovsky and the Capitals’ forwards corps, which was in a bit of a goal slump entering Game 5.

>> The Capitals entered the third period of Game 5 down a goal. And if you say you had hope for a win, Post columnist Barry Svrluga says he doesn’t believe you. Neither do we. The Caps now head to Pittsburgh for a must-win game Monday night. See you back here Wednesday night? Right now, if you tell us you have hope for that, we’ll believe you.

>> Words of advice for Caps fans from Braden Holtby’s “sports psych guy in Edmonton” John Stevenson, who has worked with Holtby since the defending Vezina Trophy winner was 14 years old: “When they’re back in Washington, just be the biggest, loudest, noisiest building cheering. You control the controllable. You’re bringing your focus to the here and now.”

>> True, Washington is outshooting the Penguins in the series and did so in lopsided fashion in the Game 4 loss. But perhaps the most surprising aspect about this year’s playoff debacle is the different ways the Capitals are beating themselves — like Dmitry Orlov kicking the puck into his own net.

>> Here’s something Dan Steinberg never ever wants to hear again for the rest of his life: The Capitals played great, dominated possession and registered 437 more shot attempts than their playoff opponent, but they lost because hockey is weird and random LOL.

>> It’s a terrible state of existence when every odd bounce that works against you has to be woven into the tapestry as part of some generations-long drama — and a depressing one at that. But it is the very existence of the Capitals, and who knows when — or if — that will change. Welcome, then, Dmitry Orlov and his right skate to this disaster. They’re part of the story now, like it or not, writes Barry Svrluga.

>> Alex Ovechkin blamed himself after Game 4. “I think I didn’t control the puck well,” Ovechkin said. “You know, I make stupid decisions. Unfortunately, it happened, and we have to forget it and we have to move forward. Every game right now for us is [a Game 7], so we have to win three to move forward. I’m pretty sure we’re ready for that.”

>> The Capitals and Sidney Crosby’s scary history of head injuries were linked long before the Penguins’ captain lay on the ice late in the first period on Monday after taking a cross-check to the face from Matt Niskanen. Pittsburgh Coach Mike Sullivan confirmed everyone’s worst fears and added a new chapter to that history when he announced Tuesday that Crosby suffered a concussion on the play and will miss at least Game 4 of the second-round playoff series.

>> You would have to live somewhere between optimism and insanity to predict the Caps will win this series. NHL teams that drop the first two games of a seven-game set at home go on to lose about 80 percent of the time. The Caps have lost six straight games in Pittsburgh. Still, Washington’s only chance, it seems to Dan Steinberg, is to ease back into the team it’s been for the past two years.

>>“So here we are again, in late April, absolutely panicking,” writes Barry Svrluga. And it’s tough to argue with him. For the Capitals, it’s starting to look like the same old story.

>> Marc-Andre Fleury helped the Penguins win a Stanley Cup in 2009 and has been a franchise cornerstone for more than a decade, but was replaced by rookie Matt Murray because of injuries last postseason. He nearly rode the bench for another playoff run, but when Murray was injured in warm-ups of Game 1 during the Penguins’ first-round series, Fleury stepped into a net that is, at least for the moment, his again. Fleury’s steady play is making the Penguins’ Cup pursuit much simpler.

>> D.C. sporting events aren’t known for their celebrity power, but last week seemed different. Twenty-four hours after Joe Biden brought down the house during a Wizards-Hawks playoff game, the Caps hosted a veteran A-lister of their own: David Letterman and his truly spectacular beard. Dan Steinberg talked with the TV legend about why he was at the game and whom he was rooting for.

>> There are few people more intimately involved with the Caps than David Abrutyn, who pops up Zelig-like throughout the history of this franchise. He has represented Washington’s best player, Alex Ovechkin, since late 2009, a few months after Ovechkin’s Caps met Sidney Crosby’s Penguins in the postseason for the first time. But that hardly begins to tell the story of his connections to the Capitals.

>> Karl Alzner, whose contract expires after this season, knows nothing will be resolved until Washington’s playoff run ends, but it’s been hard to avoid thoughts about the future. Understanding the salary cap constraints coming this summer when several young players will need new contracts, he has occasionally scanned the Capitals’ roster, trying to determine which players the team will want to keep at the cost of a raise and which will have to move on.

>> This year should be different for the Capitals, Fancy Stats’ Neil Greenberg writes. Pittsburgh overwhelmed Washington with its depth last season, but Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan addressed that issue during the offseason. The team signed Boston Bruins winger Brett Connolly, traded for center Lars Eller and moved Jay Beagle down the lineup to a role on the fourth line that better suited his defensive style of play. And the Capitals bring other advantages, as well.

>> Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby will get the lion’s share of the attention, but the eventual winner of this series will be the team that gets the most production from players other than its stars, writes Fancy Stats’ Neil Greenberg.

>> Let’s acknowledge the obvious: There shouldn’t be a Penguins series. Not yet, anyhow.

>> Playoff hockey is a rush and a thrill and a jolt of adrenaline and a three-hour sugar high. But it’s also often stupid, writes Dan Steinberg. The games are tight. The margins are tiny. Luck lurks everywhere. Happenstance tugs at every collar. And too often, the team that gets the better of the play still loses the game.

>> The Post’s Dan Steinberg argues that the Capitals actually deserve to win the Stanley Cup this year: “There’s not much more you can say about the most complete Capitals team we’ve ever seen. They had the most points in the NHL this season, the best goal differential, the fewest goals allowed, the most wins at home. They had the best goal differential in the first period, and the best goal differential in the third period. They had 59 points in their first 41 games, and 59 points in their last 41 games. They were the best hockey team out there, and it wasn’t that close.”