Everything the Capitals had built on for two games evaporated quickly in Game 7.
Washington had relied on a leaky Marc-Andre Fleury in the Pittsburgh Penguins net and early chances claimed to erase a 3-1 deficit and force this Game 7 on Wednesday.
But 10 minutes in, Fleury made it clear the Capitals wouldn’t be so lucky this time around. It felt like the Capitals had flatlined, and the possession stats back it up. With one caveat.
So had the Penguins. Fleury and friends put up a wall the Capitals could never effectively penetrate in Game 7. Washington put up a mere six shots on net in the third period. And the rival Penguins somehow slipped past with a 2-0 win and a trip to the Eastern Conference Final. Again. Somehow.
Capitals fans will agonize over that question over and over this summer. Not that they aren’t used to it. The Capitals entered and exited Game 7 without a single trip to the conference final in the Ovechkin era.
But this situation, this disappointment will sting and linger. And it should. These Penguins are not the Penguins who rolled through everyone en route to the Stanley Cup last summer. These Penguins are battered, broken and limping along. They have sorely missed injured Kris Letang’s play on the blue line.
They dressed Chad Ruhwedel, a former Buffalo Sabres washout, for Game 7. Trevor Daley has been injured all postseason.
No excuses for the Caps going up against this blue line. pic.twitter.com/G668igtKUx— Ian McLaren (@iancmclaren) May 10, 2017
That’s just the blue-line. I could go on about Sidney Crosby’s concussion. About how Mike Sullivan was juggling lines trying to find something even into Game 7, when he put Bryan Rust and Phil Kessel on a line together.
These Penguins are sailing into the conference final like Jack Sparrow sailed into the first Pirates film.
And the Capitals let them off the hook. These Capitals. With Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom in their prime. With Evgeny Kuznetsov just entering his. After huge swings for Kevin Shattenkirk and T.J. Oshie. With Braden Holtby supposedly still at “elite” status. They are as deep as ever.
And they showed it! They forced a Game 7 by pulling from all of that talent at important moments. Washington spent the last two games not just saving its season, but exposing the true state of both teams and what should be the state of the series: a superior Capitals team dominating a weary, broken Penguins squad.
If ever there was a time for Washington’s conference final ascendance it was now. And it passed by again, like so many other times destiny has left D.C.’s tortured hockey team waiting at the station over the last decade.
Maybe fans are numb to it at this point. You couldn’t blame them if they are. But if this one hurts, know that it should. And every hard question and departure decision barreling towards the Capitals this offseason is well-earned.
Because, somehow, these Capitals have stumbled into this conclusion again. And at this point it’s hard to imagine what possible answers could follow to get them over this peak before the era’s window is completely wasted.