The goal here, when I first thought of it, was to rank each and every playoff-series loss suffered by the Washington Capitals to the Pittsburgh Penguins, all nine of them. Everyone loves a good ranking-of-things, even things that are sad, and maybe someone on the Caps would read it before Thursday’s series opener and say to himself, “Hmmm, let’s avoid doing any of that.”
This proved difficult. Not the actual going back and recapping what has become a 27-year horror show. That part was either easily depressing or depressingly easy, take your pick. It was the actual ranking that gave me pause, because how can anyone quantify misfortune like this? Is a missed penalty shot in the second overtime worse than a bouncing-puck giveaway in your own end? Which is more unlucky, a carom off a Caps player’s leg or a Washington shot that hits the inside of the post without going in? And besides, I couldn’t simply put the four series that went the full seven games at the top of my list and call it a day: In a league that stakes its rep on its thrilling postseason, the four Game 7s played between Washington and Pittsburgh have somehow been almost entirely devoid of drama, with the Penguins winning them by a combined score of 14-3.
Instead, I decided to simply recap each series failure to try to pinpoint where it all went wrong, perhaps with hopes that this will be a cleansing exercise. Maybe now we can finally stop talking about it.
1991 Patrick Division finals
Gut-punch moment: After scoring a 4-2 road win in Game 1, the Caps were just 9:34 from taking a 2-0 series lead back to Landover after Calle Johansson’s goal gave them a 6-5 edge in the third period. Soon after, they appeared to have scored an insurance goal, but referee Terry Gregson blew the play dead before the puck inched over the goal line. On a delayed penalty five minutes after Johansson’s goal, Pittsburgh extra skater Randy Gilhen scored to tie it up. Kevin Stevens then beat Mike Liut for the game-winner 8:10 into overtime.
Washington would score three more goals the rest of the series as the Penguins moved one step closer to their first Stanley Cup.
Talk about your feelings: “I think it was Game 2,” Coach Terry Murray told The Post’s Dave Sell. “We came back, went ahead 6-5 and then there was the goal with a quick whistle.”
“That would have put the game out of reach, but the puck is lying there and the referee doesn’t see it,” Murray continued. “That win gave them confidence and a little momentum that they needed to get going. A victory would have given us a 2-0 lead coming home. It would have been difficult to break that momentum on our side.”
1992 Patrick Division semifinals
Gut-punch moment: The Caps won five of seven regular season meetings with the Penguins and then went up 3-1 in their first-round series, winning Games 1, 2 and 4 by an aggregate score of 16-5. Then it all fell apart. They led 2-1 in the second period of Game 5 at home and lost, 5-2. They led 4-2 in the second period of Game 6 and lost, 6-4. Finally, playing shorthanded late in the first period of Game 7 at the Cap Centre, Mike Ridley’s shot hit the inside of the post. Pittsburgh promptly collected the puck, moved up the ice and scored to take a 1-0 lead. The Caps would tie it up, but Jaromir Jagr scored another power-play goal in the second period to give the Penguins a 2-1 lead they wouldn’t surrender. They won, 3-1.
Talk about your feelings: “I never thought I would be standing up here to face the music after leading 3-1,” Murray told Sell.
1995 Eastern Conference quarterfinals
Gut-punch moment: Another year, another round of early-series dominance from the Caps, who won Games 1, 2 and 4 by a combined 17-8 to take another three-games-to-one lead, the latter two victories identical 6-2 poundings. In Game 5, Washington held leads of 2-0, 3-2, 4-3 and 5-4, the last coming on Peter Bondra’s goal nearly nine minutes into the third period (it was the third goal in a span of 1:35). But Kevin Stevens knotted the score at 5 with about eight minutes left and then Luc Robitaille flicked the puck past Jim Carey 4:30 into overtime.
The Penguins would win Games 6 and 7 by a combined 10-1.
Talk about your feelings: “Sure. Why not? We’re up 3-2,” Caps forward Keith Jones, when asked by The Post’s Len Hochberg if the team remained confident after its Game 5 loss.
1996 Eastern Conference quarterfinals
Gut-punch moment: The Capitals entered the series kind of beaten up and a heavy underdog, but they won the first two games, erasing deficits of 4-1 in the opener and 2-0 in the second game to win both. So things were looking good, even after a 4-1 loss in Game 3. Two days later, the teams would play, and play, and play, and play, four excruciating overtimes that included Joe Juneau’s penalty shot in the second, the first penalty shot ever awarded in overtime of an NHL playoff game.
He missed, because of course he did.
With only 45 seconds remaining until a fifth overtime and only a few thousand fans remaining at Cap Centre — it was well past 2 a.m. — the Penguins’ Petr Nedved ended what was then the third-longest game in NHL history (it now ranks fifth). Pittsburgh would win Game 5 with ease and then extinguish the Caps’ hopes (again) in Game 6, needing only 12 1/2 minutes to take an insurmountable 3-0 lead.
Talk about your feelings: “We wanted to get the first goal to take the crowd out of the game. … They’re pretty vocal. They come from Pittsburgh,” Capitals Coach Jim Schoenfeld after the Game 6 loss, an astounding statement considering the game was played at his team’s home arena.
2000 Eastern Conference quarterfinals
Gut-punch moment: The higher-seeded Caps had home-ice advantage but, because of previously scheduled events at the Penguins’ arena, they were forced by the league to play Games 2 and 3 in Pittsburgh instead of hosting the first two games in the District. No one outside of Western Pennsylvania was happy about this, but Washington Coach Ron Wilson remained confident.
“I’ll give Pittsburgh all seven games at their place, and we’ll go in there and beat them anyway,” he boasted before the series started.
Nothing he said actually happened. The Penguins clubbed the Caps, 7-0, in the opener at MCI Center and then won the next two on home ice thanks to the rejiggered schedule. There would be no comeback, obviously, though Washington outplayed Pittsburgh from Game 3 onward and delayed the inevitable with a Game 4 victory. With less than 12 minutes remaining in Game 5, however, Jaromir Jagr sent the puck into the slot hoping for a lucky bounce and got it: The puck caromed off Johansson’s leg and deflected into the far side of the net, giving Pittsburgh a 2-1 win.
Talk about your feelings: “I think this was the first step in a really healthy process for the city and the team,” new Capitals majority owner Ted Leonsis after the end of his first playoff series at the helm. Oh Ted. Ted, Ted, Ted.
2001 Eastern Conference quarterfinals
Gut-punch moment: The teams alternated wins over the first four games, with the Caps even winning an overtime affair in Game 4. But Pittsburgh’s two first-period goals were enough to win Game 5 and then NOOOOO SERGEI GONCHAR, NOOOOOOO.
With no one in his immediate vicinity and Game 6 tied in overtime, Gonchar somehow let the puck bounce away from his stick, Martin Straka vultured in, and that was that.
Talk about your feelings: “The building was warm. The ice was soft. The puck jumped over his stick. It just rolled up on his stick. It’s not something you shoot yourself for,” Wilson, describing the final sequence.
2009 Eastern Conference semifinals
Gut-punch moment: Hey, another 2-0 lead for the Caps, what could possibly go wrong? Games 3-5, that’s what, two of those Penguins victories ending in overtime. They teams needed an extra period to finish Game 6, too, with Washington’s David Steckel providing the heroics this time. So we got another Game 7 and another dose of abject humiliation: Pittsburgh jumped out to a 5-0 lead by about the game’s midpoint and cruised to a 6-2 win. Five of the first six games of the series were decided by one goal. The other was decided by two goals. This one was not.
Talk about your feelings: “I don’t know what happened,” Alex Ovechkin said after Game 7.
2016 Eastern Conference semifinals
Gut-punch moment: The first four games of the series were all one-goal affairs. Sadly, the Penguins were the team that was one goal better in three of them, the exception being the Caps’ overtime win in Game 1. One could sense that the series would follow the usual depressing script for the Caps when Eric Fehr tipped in the Game 2 winner in the third period. The Capitals had selected Fehr with the 18th pick of the 2003 draft but he had signed with Pittsburgh as a free agent the previous offseason. Of course he would be the one.
“All is Fehr.” Ugh.
Talk about your feelings: “I’m sure he’s pretty happy about it, but it is what it is,” Caps defenseman Karl Alzner, talking about his former teammate’s goal.
2017 Eastern Conference semifinals
Gut-punch moment: For once, the Caps did not wilt. Down three games to one and facing a 2-1 deficit entering the third period of Game 5, Washington scored three goals to stay alive. Then the Caps scored the first five goals in a 5-2 Game 6 romp. Thus, another Game 7 and another bout of excitement and dread, the latter winning the day after a 2-0 Penguins victory that offered little in the way of daggers but more of the same, nonetheless.
Talk about your feelings: “Uh, we try to do our best,” Ovechkin, trying to explain the unexplainable after Game 7.
(Caps in six.)
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