When the Washington Capitals look back on Wednesday night’s Game 7 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, they likely won’t lament the two shots that sneaked into their net.
Instead they will dread the pucks they couldn’t knock in. The regret started immediately after the 2-0 loss that sunk the Verizon Center crowd into a booing lull and ended the Capitals’ season in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs yet again. The Capitals finished with 29 shots on goal, but their offense was mainly bottled into two spurts: one at the beginning of the contest, and another toward the end of the second period.
Both ended without a scratch on the scoreboard, and Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury skated off the ice with his ninth career playoff shutout. The Capitals, victims of Fleury’s twisting limbs and their own sleepy stretches throughout the night, headed toward an early offseason.
“After two periods I thought we had some good looks even if they had a 1-0 lead,” Nicklas Backstrom said. “But I mean that’s the difference. I think the playoffs like this, you have to capitalize on your chances. Especially in a Game 7 like this.”
The offensive drop-off completely contrasted with what led to this Game 7.
In Game 5 on Saturday, the Capitals trailed 2-1 and were 20 minutes away from an even earlier exit. But then a switch was flipped, and the offense, with Alex Ovechkin playing on the third line, erupted for eight unanswered goals across Games 5 and 6.
That dug them out of a three-games-to-one hole and provided a shot to claim the series Wednesday. The energy poured into the first period, as the Capitals peppered Fleury with four shots in the first three minutes, established a solid footing in the Penguins’ zone and looked on the brink of scoring the game’s first goal. But the offense then flatlined, and Bryan Rust beat Braden Holtby in the second to give the Penguins the only edge they needed.
“We had our looks, didn’t finish,” Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “Fleury was good. We got to finish. And I think, you know, in the first few minutes there we came out like a house on fire and it sure would have been nice to pop one there. But, you know, I don’t know, that’s all I got.”
The Capitals’ best string of chances came at the end of the second and started with T.J. Oshie. About 14 minutes into the period, after one of the Capitals’ two failed power-play attempts, Oshie skated behind a bouncing puck in front. Fleury was nowhere near the right side of the goal, giving Oshie nearly half of the net to shoot into.
But his stick waved through the air and never found the puck. Soon after, Ovechkin took a one-timer that a lunging Fleury knocked wide with his right arm. Soon after that, Backstrom got behind Fleury on a rush and flung a shot off the left post and out.
After the save on Ovechkin, Fleury smiled beneath his mask as he dusted ice shavings off his crease. The Capitals, on the other hand, were left chasing the game.
“Those chances that the guys got, those are the ones that haunt you all summer,” Oshie said. “Like I said a second ago, I think myself, I’ve got to find a way to get that puck in the net. Whatever it was, it turns it into a 1-1 game.
“That’s just something that, unfortunately, for me in my career and for a lot of these guys, you almost wonder how much disappointment you’ve got to put yourself through before you can find a way to get the job done.”
The Penguins then doubled their lead on a goal by Patric Hornqvist 4:14 into the third period. Their offense was opportunistic throughout the series, which at times meant unable to generate high-grade chances, struggling to get in the zone, or making the most of a sloppy effort.
But it was enough to tilt the decisive result in their favor. The Capitals’ opportunities ran dry as the third period rolled along, and fans trickled toward the exits as Fleury discarded limp shot after limp shot. When the final horn sounded, the Capitals skated aimlessly while the Penguins formed a celebration around their goaltender.
And it was then, and only then, that Fleury shared his net with anyone else.
“Without the goals, you can’t win the game,” Ovechkin said. “And obviously blame on us.”