In the end, hockey is a sport that can provide the ultimate in joy and the ultimate in cruelty in the blink of an eye. There is nothing in professional team sports that compares to overtime in a Game 7 of a Stanley Cup playoff series. There isn’t often much warning when the deciding moment comes, but when it does the team that scores the deciding goal gathers as a pulsating clot of players embracing in a moment of well-deserved joy, while the team scored upon is generally littered all over the ice, left individually to drag themselves to their feet to form into a line to congratulate the winners in the series-ending handshake.
For the third time in team history the Capitals found themselves the latter as the New York Rangers scored 11:24 into overtime to win Game 7, 2-1, and advance to the Eastern Conference finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Derek Stepan followed up a rebound of a Dan Girardi shot and fired it past a diving goalie Braden Holtby to send the crowd at Madison Square Garden into a frenzy.
Before that, the game had all the look of what was the rest of the series, two teams that could get no space from one another, either on the ice or on the scoreboard. Alex Ovechkin, who famously proclaimed that the Caps would extend their season with a win on this night, opened the scoring in the 13th minute of the contest. It was a goal that would foretell the end, in a way. The play started with a faceoff win by Nicklas Backstrom from Derek Stepan, The puck made its way to Ovechkin at the left wing wall. He battled with defenseman Ryan McDonagh long enough to get the puck back to Backstrom in the faceoff circle. Backstrom moved the puck to Marcus Johansson at the bottom of the circle, and Johansson then found Ovechkin circling into the high slot. From between the circles Ovechkin wristed the puck past the glove of goalie Henrik Lundqvist, and the Caps had a 1-0 lead.
It was a good sign for the Caps, who were 41 in the post season when scoring the first goal. However, the Rangers denied the Caps any opportunity to add to that lead and tied the game themselves early in the second period. Late in a Ranger power play Kevin Hayes snuck behind the defense on the weak side and redirected a cross ice feed from J.T. Miller behind Holtby to tie the contest.
After that, the game was in the hands of the goaltenders, as it had been for much of the series. Holtby and Lundqvist led their teams through regulation and into overtime. There, in the twelfth minute, it would be a faceoff loss, this time Eric Fehr losing a draw to Stepan, that would lead to a goal that would send the Rangers on and the Caps into the post season. Too soon…again.
-- The little things. There are folks who say faceoffs don’t matter. Don’t believe them. A team cannot score without the puck, and when you lose a faceoff you end up trying to chase the puck down. The Caps lost a faceoff, chased it around the zone, and were left reacting to things instead of forcing play. It was cruel irony, in a way, as the Caps won 47 of 79 faceoffs in the game (59.5 percent).
-- What the Caps could not do was convert their own small victories in the circle in the offensive end. Washington was 16-for-24 on offensive zone draws (66.7 percent). Nicklas Backstrom was 8-for-11 (72.7 percent).
-- The top line got off the schneid – Ovechkin scored the goal, while Backstrom and Johansson recorded the assists. It was the first time Ovechkin and Backstrom both recorded points in a game since Game 2.
-- For what it is worth, Braden Holtby finished his post season as the goalie leader in minutes (805:43) and save percentage (.944), and was second in goals against average (1.71) among goalies appearing in at least five games.
-- Eric Fehr returned to the lineup, but there was no fairy tale ending there, either. Less than eight minutes of ice time, no shots on goal, and he was the victim of the last faceoff of the season for the Caps.
-- The Caps finished the post season 1-3 in overtime games. All-time, they are 23-30 in extra time in the playoffs. Since Joe Juneau scored in overtime to send the Caps to their only Stanley Cup final, the Caps are 10-18 in overtime games in the post season.
-- Did Alex Ovechkin deliver on his “guarantee?” No, the Caps didn’t win. But a goal, six shots on goal (tying his high in this series), three hits. Let’s not hear any nonsense about his not showing up when the heat was turned up.
-- Troy Brouwer. You can only shake your head. No goals in the series (none in 14 playoff games), no shots on goal in Game 7 in almost 21 minutes of ice time.
-- More shaking of the head… Brooks Laich. No goals in the series, in fact, no points. He did not record a point in his last nine games of the post season and managed a total of seven shots on goal in those nine games.
-- We really and truly thought Mike Green was going to be the hero in this game. As it is, it is entirely likely that Caps fans have seen him in the red, white, and blue for the last time. A few ticks under 19 minutes in ice time, no shots on goal, one attempt, two blocked shots, and two penalties, one of which leading to the Rangers power play goal in the second period.
In the end...
What were you expecting? The Caps have made it their signature not just to lose games like this but to do it in the cruelest way imaginable. You can only laugh at the fact that a team that led the league in faceoff winning percentage ended up losing a defensive zone draw that led to the game-winning, series-clinching goal. And what led to that defensive zone faceoff? It was the fire that the Caps played with all series long – an icing call.
Only one team in franchise history played more one-goal games in the post season than the 2014-2015 Capitals. Their 11 one-goal decisions this year is eclipsed only by the 13 such decisions the Caps played in the 2012 post season under Dale Hunter. As it turned out, in both of those years the Caps had a winning record in one-goal decisions – 7-6 in 2012 and 6-5 this season. In both of those years, however, they lost their last such decision…in Game 7…on the road…2-1...to the New York Rangers.
You can’t make this stuff up. More’s the pity.