NEW YORK — For several moments after his postgame comments, Alex Ovechkin sat in his stall at Madison Square Garden, still in full uniform, staring blankly across the visitors’ dressing room. His usually energetic persona was robbed of anything but the hollowness left by the Washington Capitals’ playoff run ending here with a Game 7 loss in the second round to the Rangers.
The Capitals fell, 2-1, to New York Saturday night in a contest that saw them fall behind in the first two minutes and never truly recover to prevent the season from coming to an abrupt halt.
After a tumultuous year that included a coaching change, a radical shift in strategy and publicly voiced dissent among players, Washington’s strong play in the postseason sparked thoughts of what could rise out of the din. Not even the strides the Capitals made in recent weeks could help push this group farther than various the disappointments of years past, though.
It is the fifth consecutive spring that the Capitals have failed to advance past the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, continuing a string of heartbreak during the Ovechkin era.
“It’s terrible feeling now. All I can say, we do our best and it’s probably best team I played,” Ovechkin said. “You know, group of guys and atmosphere, everybody was — it’s unbelievable to play and I hope everybody gonna stay here ’til next year. It’s hard.”
This is the first time in three playoff meetings over the past four years between these teams that New York managed to triumph, and it came with strong performances by some of its top players. Rangers prized free agent acquisition Brad Richards scored an early goal, on New York’s first shot of the game, to give them a lead they carried into the third period. In net, Vezina and Hart trophy candidate Henrik Lundqvist was stellar, making 22 saves to outduel rookie Braden Holtby who finished with 29 stops.
Several Capitals described the loss as a game they could have won, including Karl Alzner, but that didn’t prevent the defenseman from critiquing their play in this critical game.
“We didn’t play like we should have won, I don’t think,” said Alzner, whose reputation for honest and blunt evaluation is largely unparalleled on the Capitals’ roster. “We didn’t play our best game, didn’t have enough fight, enough grit. Didn’t battle for pucks enough, had a power play that was awful. It’s really too bad that in a game of this magnitude we stunk the bed, pretty much. It’s just not good enough for us.”
It was another close game, the 13th of 14 playoff contests for Washington that would be determined by only one goal, but it was the first time all postseason that the team entered the third period trailing. The Capitals spent a bulk of the contest fighting to create offense and opportunities to challenge Lundqvist, but they never received the offensive burst they needed to rally for a comeback.
“You know, we had our chances to win it, and so did they,” said Coach Dale Hunter, who didn’t comment when asked if he planned to return to guide the Capitals next season. “It’s like two good teams battling each other. What can you say? It’s just that we came up short tonight. We had our chances that we didn’t bury, and they buried two, and we only got one.”
Washington appeared caught unaware when the Rangers’ top line dumped the puck into the corner early in the first period. Rangers rookie speedster Carl Hagelin pounced on the loose puck, swooped behind the net and then sent a pass to Richards in the left circle. Richards sent a one-timer cleanly past Holtby for a 1-0 lead just 1 minute 32 seconds into the first.
Following the Game 7 loss, the Capitals dropped to 0-6 in the playoffs when allowing the first goal.
Washington pressed for the tying goal in the second period but despite numerous chances, including close looks by Alexander Semin and Mike Knuble on the doorstep and a lengthy two-minute shift that saw the visitors take up residence in the offensive zone, they couldn’t find a way to foil Lundqvist. The Rangers, meanwhile, were content to play their collapsing, patient defensive game — a style not all that dissimilar to the Capitals’ but one that has been identified with the franchise for several years now.
“They got a lead in the beginning and then they just controlled the game,” Nicklas Backstrom said. “We were trying to score and we had a lot of possession, especially in the second period, but we couldn’t get any real opportunities.”
The Rangers made it 2-0 with just less than 10 minutes left by taking advantage of a sloppy line change by John Carlson. On the Rangers’ odd-man rush, Brooks Laich blocked a shot by Marian Gaborik but the puck bounced out to an unguarded Michael Del Zotto, who buried a snap shot. The two-goal edge didn’t provide much security, though; the Capitals answered 38 seconds later to make it 2-1.
Veteran defenseman Roman Hamrlik’s shot from the slot was deflected in front and past Lundqvist to make it a one-goal game at 10:43, but that spark wouldn’t be enough to extend the Capitals’ season as they fell short of tying the contest to force extra time.
“They were 1 percent better than us tonight,” Knuble said. “You think you could’ve won. You think you were right there and I think you really go home and look in the mirror. At certain times you get beat in a playoff series and you look in the mirror and you can’t fool yourself, you didn’t have a chance to win that series, ultimately. I think our players should be very proud of our effort.”