NEW YORK -- The Washington Capitals have spent nearly the entire 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs one shot away from an outcome that would elicit incredible elation or harrowing despair.
For seven games they went toe-to-toe with the defending Stanley Cup-champion Boston Bruins, and when the final shot went their way it was elation in the visitors dressing room. After seven close contests against the top seed in the Eastern Conference in the second round, it was the other ending at Madison Square Garden.
While the New York Rangers celebrated another seven-game series victory and their first berth in the Eastern Conference Finals since 1997, the Capitals were left to ponder another second-round exit. It was the second time in five years they've reached a Game 7 in the second round, but for an organization desperate to see Game 1 of the third round, there was little solace to take from a 2-1 loss on Saturday night.
RANGERS VS. CAPITALS
Rangers outlast Capitals 2-1 in Game 7
By Dave Lozo - NHL.com Staff Writer
Michael Del Zotto and Brad Richards scored and Henrik Lundqvist made 22 saves as the Rangers edged the Capitals 2-1 in Game 7 to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they will square off with the local rival New Jersey Devils. READ MORE ›
"It's a terrible feeling now," captain Alex Ovechkin said. "All I can say, we do our best and it's probably best team I played [on]. You know, group of guys and atmosphere, everybody was – it's unbelievable to play and I hope everybody gonna stay here ‘til next year. It's hard."
Thirteen of the 14 games Washington played this spring were decided by one goal. In nine of them, neither team ever had more than a one-goal lead. Six games needed overtime to determine a winner.
The Capitals learned to play in such pressure-filled situations. They began to relish it, to embrace it as part of their identity. A lot of that came from the confidence they displayed in a 22-year-old rookie goaltender who didn't flinch (literally, at one now-famous point against Boston) in the face of adversity.
"I think that everyone played their hearts outs," defenseman John Carlson said. "[Braden] Holtby, that guy ... played his heart out from Game 1 [against the Boston Bruins]. We had a bunch of warriors in here, guys that were willing to do whatever it takes. We didn't get the bounces today."
Washington did get the bounce in Game 7 against Boston, when a puck hit Mike Knuble's leg near his own blue line. He chased it down, which led to a 2-on-1 and Joel Ward's overtime winner on a rebound of his shot.
It went the other way Saturday night. Brooks Laich thwarted a shot by Marian Gaborik in the middle of the ice near the Caps' blue line, but it went right to Michael Del Zotto and he snapped the series-winning tally past Holtby midway through the third period.
"They were one percent better than us tonight," Knuble said. "A couple key moments in the series -- you go back to Game 5, the last 30 seconds of that. That Game 5 was just a huge moment and a huge swing of things. We were able to battle back. They got the shot they needed -- first shot of the game, it goes in. We got the first shot of Game 6, our first shot went in, too. A couple moments like that really can put your finger on how the series played out."
The Caps allowed a game-tying power-play goal with 7.6 seconds remaining in regulation of Game 5, then lost in overtime. They rebounded to win Game 6 at home, showing the kind of resilience that was often missing in the past.
The Capitals evolved into a different team this season, one more focused on defense and blocking shots than the free-wheeling incarnations of the past four years. They earned plaudits for their resiliency, and a commitment to playing a different way.
This run ultimately ended the same way the previous four did -- with a lot of exasperated expressions in the dressing room after another tough loss.
"I thought we did some really good things," Laich said. "I thought the way it ended last year and the way it ended this year, I thought we took more positive steps – I thought we were a lot closer this year than last year. I think we play the right way. We played a very good hockey team. They were just able to get one more goal. It's tough."