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Capitals come up short again with Game 7 loss to Penguins

Washington's bid to reach Eastern Conference Final for first time since 1998 ends in second round

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- The Washington Capitals filed off the ice looking as if they were in a sort of trance.

Dazed and confused following their 2-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Second Round at Verizon Center on Wednesday, the Capitals didn't have a lot of answers for what had gone wrong.

They seemed to be emotionally drained by the reality that they had lost to the Penguins in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second straight season and had fallen short again in their bid to reach the Eastern Conference Final for the first time since 1998. After falling to 4-11 in Game 7 in their history, including 0-4 against the Penguins, and being shut out in a Game 7 for the third time (twice by the Penguins), the Capitals' bitter disappointment caused them to talk in hushed tones. Their belief that they would finally break out of this recurring nightmare was crushed yet again.

 

[RELATED: Complete Penguins vs. Capitals series coverage]

 

"We're trying," said Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, speaking barely above a whisper. "We try to do our best."

Right wing T.J. Oshie articulated it better.

"Unfortunately for me and my career and for a lot of these guys, you almost wonder how much disappointment you have to put yourself through before you can find a way to get the job done," Oshie said.

Video: PIT@WSH, Gm7: Holtby stretches to deny Cullen

Oshie has been with the Capitals for two seasons, but had plenty of experience already with this. The Capitals won the Presidents' Trophy in back-to-back seasons and entered the playoffs each time as the favorite to win the Stanley Cup for the first time in their history, yet couldn't get past the Penguins.

In 2014-15, the season before Oshie arrived, it was the New York Rangers who ripped out the Capitals' hearts by coming back from 3-1 in the second round and winning in overtime in Game 7. This time, the Capitals were the team trying to come back from 3-1 in the series and built up hope that this was finally their year when they won Games 5 and 6.

But it turned out to be a build-up to another big letdown.

"When you lose the right to keep playing, when you feel you can be a team that can do some damage, it always is a bitter pill to swallow," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said.

Trotz, 54, has coached 18 seasons in the NHL - 15 with the Nashville Predators and three with the Capitals - and has never made it past the second round. He too has to wonder what else he has to do to have success in the playoffs.

The narrative that Ovechkin, 31, can't win the big game will be revived. There's no doubt he had a hand in this defeat. His failure to chip the puck past defenseman Justin Schultz at the right point led directly to forward Patric Hornqvist's backhand goal that made it 2-0 at 4:14 of the third period and essentially sealed the Capitals' fate.

You could also say that luck wasn't on his side when his one-timer from between the circles struck the upper shaft of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury's stick with 3:53 left in the second period. Instead of being tied 1-1 after two periods, the Capitals trailed 1-0 despite outshooting the Penguins 15-7 in the second.

But it wasn't only Ovechkin, and good luck often comes to those who make it. With the Capitals trailing 1-0 and 5:40 left in the second period, Oshie hit the side of the net with his rebound effort at the right post when he appeared to have several feet of empty net in front of him.

"In big moments, your big players have got to play big and, regrettably, I don't think we did that tonight," Oshie said.

Video: PIT@WSH, Gm7: Holtby shuts down Crosby, Guentzel

Oshie included himself in that group, along with Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov. They all had great scoring chances in the game they couldn't finish. Kuznetsov had a power-play deflection that went off the right post when the score was 0-0 in the first period. Backstrom hit the left side of the net when he had Fleury down with 1:13 left in the second.

"Teams win this time of year," Oshie said. "I think [Ovechkin] did a great job of leading us and I think he did a good job of scoring us goals and bringing us offense, bringing us those big hits. But you need all 20 guys to win at this time of year. When guys aren't playing great, the other guys have got to pick them up and someone's got to carry the torch, and tonight we didn't have that."

When asked directly about why Ovechkin can't get past this point in the playoffs, Trotz replied, "Emotionally right now, I don't want to answer that question. We win and lose as a team. That's probably my best answer right now."

The pain, though familiar, was too fresh for Trotz and the rest of the Capitals to think clearly. Nothing they've tried has worked.

After trying to ignore their history of playoff disappointments last season, they attempted to embrace them this season. But they again collapsed under their weight.

"It's there," defenseman Matt Niskanen said of the history. "That's the narrative until we change it, so it is what it is. There's no use for us to even talk about it. You've just got to get over the hump.

"I thought we had a good opportunity to do that this year, but it's just talk. You've got to do it."

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