The afternoon after the Washington Capitals' latest postseason heartbreak, several players met for lunch. They sat around a table with stunned expressions and little to say. The same question lingered on all of their minds, and the absence of an obvious answer made it worse.
"That Game 7 is a big question mark for me: like, why [did] that happen?" Evgeny Kuznetsov said in May. "For me, I feel like it's totally different team played that game."
"I thought about a lot of it," said defenseman Karl Alzner, now with the Montreal Canadiens. "I talked about a lot of it with friends, family, guys on the team. Everyone is asking that question. You can speculate, but you don't exactly know."
It's been five months since the Capitals were shut out in a Game 7 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on their home ice to again bow out of the playoffs in the second round. Players, coaches and management acknowledged that the team was still in the process of moving on from that disappointment during a training camp that Coach Barry Trotz described as "miserable."
With the Penguins back in Washington for the first time since that game, visiting the White House on Tuesday to celebrate a second straight Stanley Cup championship before playing the Capitals on Wednesday night, what happened in that fateful Game 7 is still hanging over the Capitals. It was perhaps the most defining 60 minutes in the franchise's recent history, a waste of one of its best chances to get past the second round of the playoffs for a first time with Alex Ovechkin. It's now another piece of history the Capitals will have to overcome if they're ever back in that position.
"I don't know how to comfort anybody," General Manager Brian MacLellan said. "We don't know how to comfort ourselves. The only thing we can do is we've got to keep moving towards it. We've got to become more resilient. We've got to address things.
"We've got to get to the point where that when you feel that point of pressure in Game 7 from the whole history of it — the building, everything — that you overcome it. Somebody steps up."
In discussing that 2-0 loss, the Capitals remember their electrifying start, how they nearly scored in the opening minutes. On just the second shift, Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury played a puck behind the net, but forecheck pressure from Kuznetsov created a scramble in front of the goal. Kuznetsov and forward Justin Williams couldn't knock the puck past a sprawled Fleury. Maybe if Washington would have scored there, the outcome would've been different.
Pittsburgh's Bryan Rust scored 8:49 into the second period, a first blow to the psyche of the Verizon Center crowd. Then with 5:40 left in the second, Capitals forward T.J. Oshie hit the side of the net with his rebound effort at the right post when he appeared to have several feet of empty net in front of him.
"If there's any moment in the game that I can remember, it's the rebound on the side," Oshie said two days later. "It was a tough angle, and I was going to shoot it, I felt it start flipping over my blade. I can still feel it. If there's any part of the game that I can still remember, it's that. I can still feel the puck going off my stick. That one is probably going to haunt me for a while."
Less than two minutes later, Ovechkin dropped down to one knee as he fired at the net. Fleury slid across the net to stop the shot, and the puck bounced off the shaft of Fleury's stick, somehow staying out of the net. Behind his mask, Fleury was smiling, rubbing his stick after the good fortune.
In the press box, MacLellan could feel the energy in the arena shift to one of despair, even though it was still a one-goal game. It was as if the ghosts of repeated second-round exits were suddenly on the ice with the Capitals.
"You tell me in that Game 7 that you couldn't feel it," MacLellan said two weeks later. "It felt good, and then we didn't score in the first part of the first period and then you could just feel it coming. And that's the history in there. That's in the fans, that's in the past players. Even if you were there just for that game, you would feel it."
Four minutes into the third period, Ovechkin and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk failed to clear the puck out of the Capitals' end, and then Patric Hornqvist lifted the Penguins to a 2-0 lead with a backhand shot in front of the net.
The Capitals managed just five shots on goal after Hornqvist scored, unraveling at this point in the postseason like they had so many times before.
"We've got to own the big moments," Trotz said. "We haven't done that yet. If there's a cure for that — I wish there was a pill for it, but there isn't. You've got to plow through it. Some way, we've got to plow through it, and we're going to continue to do things the right way to win hockey games, as many as we can, so that we can put ourselves again in that position and try to break through."