NEW YORK — The red equipment bags had been loaded onto a cart and wheeled through the bowels of Madison Square Garden, headed home for the last time this season. Sticks — those not cracked in anger — leaned against the wall, untouched, beneath the numbers of their owners. Crumpled balls of tape and empty water bottles were strewn about the dressing room, bones for the end of the Washington Capitals’ season, near the dry-erase board, empty except for this reminder: “Bus 11:40.”
When the doors swung open and the Capitals trickled from the showers, stone-faced and shipwrecked on the sands of their haunted history, they brought the fresh pain with them: the lost faceoff after a second straight icing, the juicy rebound flopped to a wide-open foe, their goaltender flat on his back, blurred memories of Wednesday night’s 2-1 overtime loss in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
As Derek Stepan stepped toward the puck on the weak side and cranked it past Braden Holtby, the New York Rangers celebrated their second straight berth in the conference finals, still unbeaten in 10 elimination games on this rink, the longest such streak in league history. The Capitals, meanwhile, trudged off the ice to begin another early summer, another round of vacations spent picking through their three straight defeats, wondering what could have been.
Two games ago, in this building, they were 101 seconds away from advancing to their third conference finals in franchise history. Instead, the Rangers became the first team to overcome 3-1 series deficits in consecutive seasons.
“Disappointing,” forward Joel Ward said. “Disappointing.”
“It’s a lot to digest right now,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “Guys are hurt, for sure.”
“When you lose in overtime like this, Game 7, it’s an empty feeling,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “I thought we deserved better as a team.”
Coach Barry Trotz had instructed them to play relentlessly and without fear against the Presidents’ Trophy winners, and they felt they had. They had undergone so much change during Trotz’s maiden voyage, revamping their system and eclipsing the 100-point plateau, enjoying breakout seasons across the lineup and home-ice advantage in the first round.
And yet here was the gullet-punching cruelty of the sport they had chosen, reputations and narratives staked on the lost draw of forward Eric Fehr, making his series debut, the initial shot pummeled by defenseman Dan Girardi into traffic and Stepan, all alone, charging toward the back door with Holtby sitting on his backside. Finally, here was the resolution to these skintight semifinals, when the Rangers scored 13 times and the Capitals scored 12, and all seven games were decided by one goal.
“We’re learning from our history and we’re looking it right in the eye,” Trotz said. “We went after this game. There was no nervousness in our part. We went after the New York Rangers in their own barn and almost pulled it off. I said to them all year, defeat is not your undertaker, it should be your teacher. And I’ll tell you what, we learned a lot. . . . You’re going to see the Washington Capitals back here again.”
With two days to stew between their 4-3 loss at Verizon Center on Sunday and the winner-take-all rematch here in midtown Manhattan, their captain had sparked a frothing, breathless debate when he expressed an unflinching confidence that the Capitals would win Game 7. Many called it a guarantee, likened to the storybook claims of Joe Namath and Mark Messier. A New York Post headline called him “cocky,” more noise from the man who had never reached the conference finals. The Capitals called him their leader, saying what they all believed.
In the first period, two minutes after Washington killed forward Evgeny Kuznetsov’s interference penalty, Alex Ovechkin and his linemates gathered for an offensive-zone faceoff. When Nicklas Backstrom won the draw clean, Ovechkin fought off two Rangers, poked the puck back to his center and rumbled toward the net. A slick backhanded feed from Marcus Johansson slipped past the outreached stick of Ryan McDonagh, the top-pair defenseman tasked with shadowing the NHL’s leading goal-scorer.
As McDonagh dived ahead in a last-ditch effort, Ovechkin settled himself and whipped the puck past goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, kissed his fist and howled into the sudden silence. For only the second time in 14 games this postseason, the Capitals held a lead entering the first intermission.
“I know people went after Alex for saying what he did,” Trotz said. “I’d love to go in the foxhole with guys who will stick their neck out and say, I’m going to deliver for you. And he did.”
With momentum tugged into their corner, the Capitals handcuffed their sparkplug with their own mistakes in the second period, killing forward Jay Beagle’s holding penalty that bridged the break and defenseman Mike Green’s tripping, committed 29 seconds after Beagle released. Then, when Green cross-checked Dan Girardi only 39 seconds after his first minor ended, they finally cracked.
A dozen seconds remained on the Rangers’ fourth power play, their most since Game 2, when Washington defenseman Brooks Orpik’s clear attempt rimmed around the boards and settled at McDonagh’s feet. With Jason Chimera charging toward him, McDonagh did enough to poke the puck forward and find forward J.T. Miller, who wheeled into the right faceoff circle and drew the attention of all four Capitals. His nifty feed connected with Kevin Hayes, who needed little more than a gentle nudge for the equalizer, becoming the first Rangers rookie to score in a Game 7 since 1939.
The third period zipped along scoreless. Lundqvist denied Kuznetsov when the rookie slipped free for a close-range backhand. On the other end, Holtby kicked away Kevin Klein’s hissing attempt from inside the blue line, then swallowed Dominic Moore’s one-timer from the left faceoff circle. Late last week, Trotz had called this series one of the best netminding battles he had ever witnessed in the postseason. If anyone had forgotten, here was their reminder.
Down a defenseman after Orpik flattened Dan Boyle in the neutral zone, leaving him woozy and needing help to enter the dressing room, the Rangers kept the Capitals at bay, coaxing several icings and staving off exhaustion as long as their bodies would allow. (Hayes even yanked a tooth from his upper row while sitting on the bench, because the night apparently hadn’t already reached a satisfactory state of madness.) But neither side relented. For the second time in three games, and the eighth time in the postseason since 2011, the Capitals and Rangers demanded resolve beyond regulation.
“You saw two very good teams go nose-to-nose, with just inches, an inch here, an inch there,” Trotz said. “I think everybody here probably predicted seven games, and you got it.”
When it was all over, when the red bags had been packed and reporters flooded into the dressing room to conduct the postmortem, Niskanen waited at his stall, rubbing his head and staring at the carpet. Like his teammates, he believed the Capitals had put forth one of their better efforts of the series. Like his teammates, he found it hadn’t helped stave off the pain. And when the questions ended, he stood and walked away. The Capitals had a bus to catch at 11:40. Their season was over, and they were headed home.