Neither the Washington Capitals nor New York Rangers possessed more than a two-goal lead at any point in their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series before Monday night. Five of the first six games were decided by one goal, two required overtime. A blowout didn’t seem to be in the cards.
In Game 7 of this Eastern Conference quarterfinal, however, a Capitals team that fought back from last place in the NHL to clinch the Southeast Division title had no response.
The Capitals’ season ended with an unceremonious thud, shut out 5-0 by New York at Verizon Center in the team’s worst postseason loss since 2000. Henrik Lundqvist was superb in goal, finishing with 35 saves to conclude a series the Rangers initially trailed two games to none with consecutive shutouts.
“Quite honestly, tough to explain. It’s funny how over the years the seventh game turns into some form of blowout,” said Adam Oates, the Capitals’ first-year coach. “I wish I had an answer for that. Obviously we pushed very hard in the first period, he made a lot of great saves. They got a lucky one and every bounce seemed to go their way after that.”
This is the latest seven-game gut punch for the Capitals during the Alex Ovechkin era. In the past six postseasons, Washington is 2-5 in winner-take-all games, 1-4 when that game is played at home.
In that same span, with the core of Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green, the Capitals have never advanced past the conference semifinals; this elimination marks the third time they’ve been booted from the first round.
Asked if there was anything the team could take out of this short stay in the postseason, Backstrom was scathing.
“Lesson? Maybe learn how to play in the playoffs, I would say,” said Backstrom, who was critical of his own one-goal, three-point effort in the series. “It’s the same thing as previous years, I would say. We came back regular season then playoff came and we’re not good enough. I can just talk for myself and my effort. Not good enough. No excuses. It’s just a bad effort.”
The Capitals had the start they wanted on Monday, the one they lacked in previous outings. They dictated the pace, established plenty of early offensive-zone time and created numerous scoring chances.
Lundqvist “makes incredible saves to keep them in the game, especially Game 6, the saves that he makes was very huge for them,” said Ovechkin, who recorded 13 hits but just one shot on goal in Game 7, and was held without a point for the fifth straight game in the series. “Maybe we tried too hard to put the puck in the net. Maybe we weren’t too loose to figure out how to do it. Even today, the first 10 minutes we were all over them and we didn’t score the goal.”
With just more than 13 minutes gone in the opening period, Mike Green jumped up on a partial breakaway. It was Washington’s best chance early on, but Lundqvist stopped the wrist shot easily and on the ensuing rush the Rangers pulled ahead.
Fourth-liner Arron Asham fired a well-placed shot high to Holtby’s glove side to hand New York a 1-0 lead with 13 minutes 19 seconds gone in the first — just nine seconds after Green’s prime opportunity at the opposite end.
“Momentum of the game shifted the other way, they went down and got a lucky shot. Kind of took the wind out of our sails but we had lots of time to come back,” said Green, who was the only Capital to record two goals in the series.
“We just needed one, to be honest,” Green added. “Tonight we just needed one and I think the outcome could have been the other way. It’s tough to put it all together right now.”
Giving up the first goal after dominating the opening 12 minutes deflated the Capitals. Suddenly the energy to their game was gone and not even a late power play that stretched between the first and second period could spark them.
Washington recorded just one shot on goal during the man advantage, then struggled to regain its dominance at even strength. The Capitals iced the puck twice in less than 30 seconds and were unable to cleanly exit the zone. Their deficit soon increased to two.
New York’s fourth line and third defensive pairing combined for a lengthy shift in the offensive zone, and when a rebound from Derek Dorsett’s shot popped out near the right post, Taylor Pyatt swatted it past Holtby for a 2-0 lead at 3:24.
Just more than two minutes later came the goal that truly brought the sense of defeat to the surface. Michael Del Zotto’s shot from high on the left side deflected off the skate of Troy Brouwer, who had gone down on one knee to block the shot, and then skidded between Holtby’s legs. As the 3-0 New York lead went up on the board just 5:34 into the second period, the shoulders on the home bench drooped and it was clear even at that early stage that a comeback likely wasn’t in the offing.
Ryan Callahan piled on just 13 seconds into the third period, sending the home fans who were so loud just hours earlier streaming to the exits amid a faint chorus of boos. Mats Zuccarello dumped more salt into the gaping wound of the home team to make it 5-0.
“This is the best team, team-wise, that we’ve been on. We had the depth, we had the coaching, the structure, the system,” Green said. “Things happen during series that just seem for whatever reason at the wrong time happen to us. That’s no reflection of the guys in the dressing room or how bad we wanted it. The heart and the depth of the guys throughout the lineup is not the reflection of how it should end.”