The goal that effectively killed “Rock the Red” in Washington was immediately preceded by a play in which the man who launched the era over a decade ago — Alexander Ovechkin, Ovie, the Great 8, the Russian Machine — was demolished just inside the blue line by Brian Dumoulin, a 25-year-old Penguins defenseman with no known nicknames. A few beats later, Pittsburgh’s Bryan Rust (also: no known nicknames) scored the first goal of Wednesday’s Penguins-Caps Game 7. At that point, more than half of the game remained, but the moment felt like finality. Talent doesn’t matter. It’s the Penguins; it’s the Capitals. The hockey gods have no heart.
Ovechkin was also on the ice for the Pens’ second goal, the Patric Hornqvist dagger just over four minutes into the third period that pushed the score to 2–0, where it would remain. Washington had already pinged posts, flubbed breakaways, stroked Marc-Andre Fleury’s shaft, and squandered multiple gilt-edged chances. Pittsburgh coldly buried theirs. So: The injury-plagued Penguins advance to the Eastern Conference finals to take on the Senators. The regular-season-champion Caps, as always, crash out early. The earth, it’s still spinning. Ovie’s final stat line: zero points, four shots, a minus-2 rating. He has now been on the losing end of five home Game 7s in his career — none past the second round.
It’d be all too convenient to lay the latest Capitals failure at Ovechkin’s skates, and many surely will. But as in years past, the Caps’ playoff exit wasn’t solely a byproduct of Ovie’s performance. Washington, by most statistical measures, was better than Pittsburgh for the majority of the seven games. The Caps outhit, outshot, and out-Corsi’ed their rivals. When it mattered most, however — in Game 7, in this series, in the entire history of the two franchises — the Penguins finished. The Capitals fumbled. It’d be sadder if it all weren’t so utterly predictable.
The record will show that the series was decided by Wednesday’s result, but in reality it was lost much earlier. The Caps bungled Game 1 within the span of a minute, conceding two Sidney Crosby goals on defensive breakdowns at the start of the second period in a 3–2 defeat. When Crosby missed Game 4 with a concussion and all signs pointed to a momentum change, Washington goalie Braden Holtby came up a save short in a final with the same score.
A 3–1 series deficit was, as it turns out, a death knell. Caps head coach Barry Trotz made adjustments late in the series, most notably slotting Ovechkin on the third line and rolling seven defensemen. It worked, for a spell, but it provided false hope. Despite the positive buzz after Monday’s 5–2 rout on the road in Game 6, the Capitals were never going to beat the Pens in three consecutive games. That may have been possible against a lesser foe, but not the Stanley Cup holders. “This team is different,” said Caps fans throughout the season to guard against the thought of another playoff meltdown. To some extent, it was. But the Penguins remained the same: winners.
Where does this leave the Capitals? Defensemen Karl Alzner and trade-deadline acquisition Kevin Shattenkirk are free agents, and likely gone; so too are wingers T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams, the pieces that were supposed to get Washington over the hump. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, Dmitry Orlov, and Nate Schmidt are all restricted free agents; most likely, they will stay. Regardless, the Caps will be different next season, and probably not for the better.
Likewise, Capitals fandom is in a precarious state. The thought of another 82-game slog ending in a familiarly demoralizing postseason outcome feels almost masochistic. It takes 16 playoff victories to hoist a Stanley Cup; the Ovie-led Caps have never won more than seven. It’s not only the core of the Capitals that is on the decline, it’s also the faith of their supporters, to whom promises of future success will ring hollow. Caps fans love to complain about hockey media’s skepticism about their team, but the narrative rings true: For whatever reason, Washington isn’t built to win a championship. Anger and depression were for postseasons past; acceptance is the final stage.
As for the captain? Ovechkin, who turns 32 in September, will endure a summer of trade rumors, heartless memes, and suggestions that he might bolt home to Russia or even retire. (He is now the NHL’s Carmelo Anthony.) The Capitals’ best player is center Nicklas Backstrom. He may be the only untouchable left on the roster.
Uncomfortable decisions await. For now, we’re faced with a sad annual tradition: the dejected, post-playoff-elimination Ovechkin interview.
“We tried to do our best,” he said.
If only that were enough.