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For some Caps fans, this Game 7 heartbreak was different

Capitals fans react after Wednesday’s Game 7 loss. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Sitting at the upstairs bar at Penn Quarter Sports Tavern two hours before puck drop of Game 7 on Wednesday, Capitals fan Tyler Duchaine rolled up the left sleeve of his Braden Holtby jersey to reveal his tattoo of forward Brett Connolly getting a tattoo while crushing a slice of pizza after Washington won its first Stanley Cup last June. Duchaine’s celebratory ink, a perfectly quirky reminder of the euphoria of the past 10 months, would be there when he woke up Thursday morning, no matter what the night had in store.

“If they lose tonight, it’s going to suck, but we still had last season,” Duchaine said before Washington’s 4-3 loss to Carolina in double overtime ended any hopes of a repeat.

“I feel like the pressure’s off a little bit,” Lindsey Duchaine-Novak, Tyler’s wife, said. “It was just years and years of begging, ‘Please, I just want to see you guys win the Cup.’ Now, I can’t really ask for anything more.”

A few seats down, another couple, Dorian and Sarah Waitz, were enjoying a pregame drink before making their way to Capital One Arena. If they were nervous about the Capitals’ season potentially ending in the first round, they didn’t show it.

“I feel more confident this year,” Dorian said. “We play better at home, we’re better than the Hurricanes, and if we play like we normally do, I think we’ll win tonight, but there was definitely a weight that was lifted when we won the Cup last year. We can’t win the Cup every year. I’m accepting that, as a reasonable person.”

“I’m definitely less stressed because we won it last year and got over the hump,” Sarah said.

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Not everyone was equally calm. Standing outside the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, longtime season ticket holder Joe Masson was counting down the minutes until Washington’s first Game 7 at home since a season-ending loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2017.

“It’s the same as all the rest of them,” Masson, who wears a hockey helmet with a working goal light affixed to the top to every game, said with a laugh. “It’s not fun, but it’s very exciting. It’s been a long day waiting for this, and I just want to get it going. We’ve been around a while and we’ve been through it all. The longer we’ve been around, the less it hurts when they lose, and the less time it takes to recover from it. But it still hurts, and when you win, you want to keep going.”

In the first period, it appeared the Capitals’ Stanley Cup title defense would endure for at least one more round. The fans inside the bar erupted when Andre Burakovsky gave Washington a 1-0 lead less than three minutes into the game. “What a start!” a fan in an Alex Ovechkin jersey shouted after the Capitals captain set up Tom Wilson for a second goal with a dazzling pass four minutes later.

Novak-Duchaine knew better.

“This is the worst lead in hockey,” she said. “We need 10 more.”

The bar went quiet after Sebastian Aho’s shorthanded tally midway through the second period cut the Capitals’ lead in half. Evgeny Kuznetsov provided a jolt and prompted the loudest cheers of the night with his first goal of the series a few minutes later. A familiar chant of “C-A-P-S Caps! Caps! Caps!” rang out as several fans stepped away from their high-top tables to mimic Kuznetsov’s “Bird” celebration.

The air went out of the room again when Teuvo Teravainen scored late in the second period to pull the Hurricanes within 3-2, and at the start of the third period, you could cut the tension in the room with a Warren Foegele (high) stick. Jordan Staal’s equalizer at the 2:56 mark was met with scattered obscenities, and when a server checked on a table of Caps fans a few minutes later by asking “You guys okay?” the honest answer would have been “No, we most definitely are not.”

Fans shouted and stomped their feet — How did that not go in?! — when Carolina’s Brock McGinn dived to swat a puck that trickled through the crease out of harm’s way late in the third period to preserve the 3-3 tie. There were groans and boos as the game went into overtime and no shortage of gasps and cries for Washington to clear the dang puck during the first extra stanza. After the Capitals failed to convert on a power play and Ovechkin ripped a shot off Hurricanes goalie Petr Mrazek’s mask, McGinn’s game-winning goal 11 minutes into the second overtime almost seemed inevitable.

“They didn’t deserve to win tonight, and they lost to a better team,” 25-year-old Capitals fan Jack Trainor said as other patrons settled their tabs and headed into the night. “Obviously winning the Cup last year takes the edge off a little bit, but it still hurts to go down in the first round. All the other division winners also went down, so I don’t know if that makes me feel any better, but it’s not just a Caps thing this year.”

Trainor said he felt “cautiously optimistic” before the game, a feeling he rarely experienced as a Capitals fan before they won the Stanley Cup.

“I felt fine all day. I was excited, whereas in years past, I would’ve been a wreck coming into Game 7,” he said. “The dagger isn’t as deep, even though we came up shorter than previous years by not advancing past the first round.”

Many Capitals fans echoed this sentiment on social media, though it wasn’t shared by all.

“So sure … this stinks,” well-known Capitals fan William “Goat” Stillwell tweeted early Thursday morning. “It always does. But, at least for me, this loss, even with the blown series lead, feels so much less horrible than it maybe ever has before. 35 pounds of silver works some strange magic, even all these months later.”

Jud and Rosemary Barnes, who attended Wednesday’s game and have seen more than their fair share of heartbreaking losses during their 13 years as season-ticket holders, acknowledged that this first-round exit didn’t sting as much as past defeats.

“It was a hard-fought game and the guys obviously played their hearts out,” Jud said. “It’s been a weird year where all the top seeds have gone down, and we just joined that group. It’s disappointing, but it’s not as crushing as the Penguins games.”

“Because the Penguins fans aren’t on the steps,” Rosemary said.

Back at Penn Quarter Sports Tavern, 29-year-old Douglas Reyes tried to put the loss in perspective.

“Game 7s will never not be stressful,” he said. “I would’ve been a lot more despondent and in a lot more in pain before the Cup. It’s unfortunate that we lost this game, but I’m still buzzing from last year. I’m so proud of that team for what they’ve done.”

“My liver couldn’t handle another win, honestly,” Novak-Duchaine said.

Read more on the Capitals:

The Capitals’ Stanley Cup party finally ended. It was fun.

The Capitals always have last year, but this time around, the Stanley Cup won’t be theirs

Capitals power play comes up empty at a pivotal moment in OT in Game 7

In the end, the Capitals were outplayed and out-coached in nearly every way by Carolina