No one saw this coming, especially the 18,277 fans inside Verizon Center, who stood and screamed their red heads off during the last 90 seconds Wednesday night, thanking their team for a memorable season.
"I don't know," is a statement Alex Ovechkin said over and over again as he spoke at his locker stall. "I think we were mentally ready for this game, but we have to understand what can cost us losing. I think after the first period, they scored again and they just killed us. They used our mistakes. That's what it's all about."
The first few days and probably even weeks of the offseason won't be so kind to these Capitals, who truly felt as though they were a better team than the Penguins. The sting of a blowout Game 7 loss in front of their home crowd of will hurt.
"I'm going to have it for a long time in my head," forward Tomas Fleischmann said.
The hurt will go away, though. Maybe not every last bit of it, but at least 90 percent will be gone by the time the team reunites for training camp in September.
Even though it seemed as though the world was crashing at their feet late Wednesday night, the Washington Capitals are still a team that is very much on the rise.
Ovechkin will be back. So, too, will Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, Mike Green and Simeon Varlamov. Tom Poti, Matt Bradley, Brooks Laich, Brian Pothier, John Erskine, David Steckel, Chris Clark and Jose Theodore are all under contract as well.
Motivation should not be a problem.
"We're very close to being a good team and maybe all it is is a little bit more maturity in some areas and I think we'll be able to make that step," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. "I believe next year…I would be very disappointed if we weren't in the final four."
It seems reasonable to expect them to get there considering the Caps climbed another step on the ladder to greatness this season.
A year ago, they were the playoff darlings of the League, winning seven straight games to close the regular season and capture the Southeast Division title. The run ended in overtime of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Philadelphia Flyers.
It was crushing, but at the time you could sense hope fluttering around the dressing room.
This year, the Capitals coasted to the division title from January on and managed to solve their Game 7 issues by beating the New York Rangers to advance into the second round. They couldn't do it twice, but sometimes character is built in losing.
"It's good steps for us for sure," Ovechkin said. "We take the good experience and take the bad experience. We can't play like we played when we got a lead 2-0 (against Pittsburgh). We have to make a little bit more push and everybody now knows we were so close, but close is not good enough. Right now, it's a bad time and of course for a couple weeks or months we'll feel terrible, but it is what it is."
A loss. An offseason that is longer than expected.
Not the end of the world. Not by any means.
"It's done and it's good teaching for us, good experience for us," Ovechkin said. "We're disappointed. We're a pretty good team. It's all about us at the end."
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