The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

Hurricanes forward Brock McGinn celebrates his game-winning goal in double overtime Wednesday night. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Washington always will have Alex Ovechkin, loopy with happiness, diving into that fountain in his droopy drawers.

D.C. will always keep its memories of the Save by Braden Holtby in the Stanley Cup finals against Vegas, and T.J. Oshie chugging a brew through his jersey.

Most of all, every Capitals fan, from the newest to the “Suffering Since 1974” crowd, will have those massive, citywide bonding moments, gazing last June at a mall jammed into the distance with rejoicing fans, with the Stanley Cup shining.

What Washington will not have is back-to-back titles. That dream is dead after a crushing — and far too Old Caps — 4-3, double-overtime loss in Game 7 to the Carolina Hurricanes in the first round of the playoffs Wednesday night at roaring, then utterly despondent Capital One Arena. The season-slaughtering goal was scored by Brock McGinn at 11:05 of the second overtime period.

After the Capitals had squandered a 3-1 lead, after they had allowed a shorthanded goal, after they had put their fans through paroxysms of Game 7 hope and agony, through one overtime and into a second, the bitter end finally came.

Justin Williams, the man known as “Mr. Game 7,” became “Mr. Season Over” as far as the Capitals are concerned. He tossed the puck toward the net, where McGinn redirected it past Holtby.

As the teams shook hands afterward, Williams and Ovechkin stopped for a talk, with the Great Eight pounding Williams on his shoulder pads in respect. In 2015-16 and 2016-17, Williams was a Capital. Back then, the three-time Stanley Cup champ provided no magic for Washington.

In a season that seemed promising but was never quite as energized, focused or desperate-when-needed as the previous glorious one, the patient finally flatlined at just past 11:30 p.m. Rock the Red time.

"It always comes down to the details. It always does. We take pride in it," said Hurricanes rookie coach Rod Brind'Amour, whose team executed better than the more creative, less disciplined Caps. "Those players will remember that game forever."

The Caps won’t forget it soon, either, especially because they knew the powerhouse Tampa Bay Lightning, their nemesis Pittsburgh Penguins and the Calgary Flames, the top seed in the West, had already been knocked out.

Hurricanes eliminate Capitals, win Game 7 in double overtime

“I liked our start. It could have been 3-0 or 4-0,” said Caps rookie coach Todd Reirden, whose team took a 2-0 lead less than seven minutes into the game on a pair of brilliant goals. One was the solo creation of a whirling Andre Burakovsky, and the other a near-layup goal by Tom Wilson on an Ovechkin assist after Alex left two defenders undressed with stickhandling and then faked the goalie out of position, too.

“We didn’t execute [on the add-on-goal chances]. Then we gave up the shorthanded goal,” added Reirden, drawn and drained. “That started to send things in the opposite direction. . . . We had some chances to put this one away early, just like we had a chance to put this series away early. . . . The execution in this series was not as good as I would have hoped. . . . Our guys fought till the end. It took a puck that was hit out of the air to get rid of us.”

The Caps were not supposed to be gotten rid of — at all — by the Hurricanes, a franchise that had not been to the playoffs in a decade, although the Caps only had five more points in the regular season.

Even though this final game was even statistically, the Hurricanes either matched the Caps or got the better of the play throughout this series, with the exception of a Game 5 blowout. Wednesday’s final goal, in a scrum in front of Holtby where hardly anyone in the stay-till-the-end sellout crowd could actually see what happened, ended the Caps’ year with a groan. That Caps fan’s sign — “Hurricane Season Is Over” — had it backward.

The dour present, with the Caps downcast, their elbows on the bench half-wall as the Hurricanes celebrated, does not erase, or even dim, a glorious recent past. But instead of a doubt-free offseason of celebration, the Caps will face months of hard questioning, from within and outside.

“That one’s going to take some time to go through — double overtime in Game 7,” Reirden said. “It’ll take time to figure out different things we could have done.”

Dan Steinberg: The Capitals’ Stanley Cup party finally ended. It sure was fun.

For months, on holes No. 1 through 18 everywhere, they will be asked how their franchise record in Game 7s could drop to 5-12 and their mark in Game 7s at home in the Ovechkin era to 2-6. How could a team with the Caps’ pedigree lose to a team with so little experience?

Could Barry Trotz have done better? That’s the big, ugly question, covered with warts. The Caps’ title-winning coach of last season — the veteran leader with presence and universal NHL respect who finally led the Caps past their stunning history of failure a year ago — will lead his Islanders to face the Hurricanes in the second round, not the Caps.

From the moment owner Ted Leonsis made it clear that he wouldn’t open the vault to pay Trotz a market-value contract as a reward for the Caps’ first title in their 44 years, my stomach’s official position was, “Bad karma.”

The Caps didn’t do it. Reirden, a calm, smart pro’s pro but also a rookie in stark juxtaposition to Trotz’s 20 years as a head man behind an NHL bench, will be under a microscope. In particular, how could a team with the Caps’ star talent look befuddled by the Hurricanes’ heavy forechecking pressure for much of the series without Reirden’s staff finding answers?

The Capitals join the 128-point Lightning, swept by Columbus, and the Flames, knocked out in just five games, in this NHL spring of surprises. And on F Street, there’s bitter disappointment after a postseason that few thought would end in just one round.  

In the Caps’ dressing room, Holtby answered questions in his usual low, philosophical voice. When he was finished, it turned out that two 20-something fans had gotten into the press scrum around the goalie.

“Shake it off, champ!” the pair started calling as they applauded.

A stunned Caps executive took about a second to yell, “Security!” And they were thrown out.

Just like the Caps.