So much changed for the Washington Capitals in one month, but then so much remained the same.
The Capitals began the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs as a No. 7 seed facing the defending champs Apr. 12 in Boston. After a month of white-knuckle hockey, the Capitals had dispensed the Bruins and pushed the top-seeded New York Rangers to a Game 7. A win would have been a breakthrough for a franchise that hasn't reached the conference finals since 1998, and for a core group of players that has experienced only playoff failure.
It didn't happen.
For the fourth time in five years, the Capitals lost a Game 7. This was the first away from Verizon Center, and while Washington performed better than a typical No. 7 seed can expect to, it still wasn't enough.
Here are five reasons why the Capitals were left to ponder their future yet again Saturday night after a 2-1 loss to the Rangers instead of plotting strategies to defeat the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference Finals:
HEADS OR TAILS? The Washington Capitals played 14 postseason games, and 13 were decided by one goal. Only five of the games featured a two-goal lead at any point, and no team ever forged ahead by three. Six of the games went to overtime. The Capitals wanted to play this way -- defensive-minded, conservative at times. By doing so it kept them in games they might have otherwise not been, but it also did the same for their opponent. They played a lot of "coin flip" games -- Game 7 in Boston came up heads, while it was tails Saturday night at Madison Square Garden.
STAGE PRESENCE: New York's three highest-paid players led the way in Game 7. Brad Richards scored the first goal while Marian Gaborik assisted on the second. Their line, along with rookie Carl Hagelin, was the best for either side by a significant margin. Lundqvist also had a huge game. The Capitals' top earners, on the other hand, did not have nearly the same impact. Alex Ovechkin's line had a strong first period, but he missed the net with a great chance just seconds before New York's goal, which was scored by a guy (Michael Del Zotto) who knocked him to the ice in the Rangers zone before skating to the other end and putting home what become the series-clinching tally.
Nicklas Backstrom created a couple of prime chances, but was otherwise relatively quiet -- even after he and Ovechkin were reunited in the third period. Alexander Semin had one of his worst games of the playoffs, turning the puck over in bad areas on several occasions and outside of the setup on that big miss from Ovechkin having very little impact at the offensive end. Ovechkin and Backstrom weren't bad, they just weren't great while New York's top guys were.
IRON THRONE: While the Capitals played well at times in Game 7, ultimately they could not solve "King Henrik" enough. Lundqvist had maybe his best game of the series, and the second period was probably his best 20 minutes of the seven games. The Rangers grabbed an early lead and Lundqvist, with a fortress of shot blockers in front of him, made it stand up. Washington's Braden Holtby played as well as Lundqvist for most of the series, but he was just a bit better in the deciding contest.
DOUBLE WHAMMY: After losing Game 3 in triple overtime, the Capitals won Game 4 and outplayed the Rangers in Game 5. They were seconds away from claiming a 3-2 series lead with a home game to try and close out the series. Joel Ward, the hero of Game 7 in the opening round, was called for a double-minor high-sticking penalty, and the Rangers tied the game with 7.6 seconds left in regulation before scoring on the second half of the power play in overtime. New York would have played with more desperation in Game 6, but the Capitals missed a glorious opportunity by an incredibly slim margin.
NEED FOR SPEED: The Capitals have a couple of extremely fast skaters, but the overall team speed was lacking this season, and the Rangers were able to exploit it at times. It was particularly troublesome on the blue line, where the Capitals opted for experience over youth with guys like Dennis Wideman and Jeff Schultz playing and the swift-skating Dmitry Orlov out of the lineup. Toss in Roman Hamrlik and half the Washington defense was not exactly fleet afoot. Swapping out Mathieu Perreault for Mike Knuble, and then because of injury Jay Beagle for Jeff Halpern also made the team a little slower, though Knuble played well and probably deserved more ice time than he received. The biggest speed issue was losing races to loose pucks, especially when the Rangers were forechecking and the Capitals weren't able to get out of their own zone to regroup.
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