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Ovechkin, Capitals again fail to reach East Final

Washington eliminated in second round with Game 6 OT loss to Penguins

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

PITTSBURGH -- Alex Ovechkin called it "funny," but there was nothing to laugh about in the Washington Capitals locker room.

There was only the familiar pain that comes with unfulfilled expectations and another, as Ovechkin put it, "missed opportunity."

The Capitals season ended in torturous fashion Tuesday with a 4-3 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Second Round at Consol Energy Center.

All hope appeared lost when the Capitals trailed 3-0 late in the second period, but they valiantly battled back to force overtime only to have their hearts ripped out by Nick Bonino's rebound goal 6:32 into sudden death.

So, the Penguins move on to face the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final, and the Capitals go home much sooner than they'd hoped -- again.

"Another game that's the last shot," Ovechkin said after the Capitals lost in overtime for the second time in three games. "I'm proud of my team, proud of my teammates. I'm proud of this group no matter what happened, but, again, we lost in the second round, so it [stinks]."

Video: WSH@PIT, Gm6: Bonino buries rebound to clinch series

That is the heart of the matter for the Capitals. Despite all their success in the regular season, they have not been able to get past the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs since their lone trip to the Cup Final, in 1998.

In the Ovechkin era, which began in 2005-06, the Capitals have reached the second round five times and haven't been able get over the hump.

After winning the Presidents' Trophy and setting their record with 56 victories during the regular season, the Capitals thought this was finally their year. The Penguins turned out to be the hotter, deeper, more-clutch team.

"Every year, there's lots of expectations, lots of great players, but something we're missing," Ovechkin said. "This group of guys can do better and bigger than just the second round. We have the best goalie in the League, we have a solid group of guys on the defensive side, and all four lines can play well. You can see it. We just didn't execute when we had a chance to put the puck in the net."

The Capitals repeatedly talked about how this group was different and what happened in the past had no impact on what was going to happen this season. You almost believed it after John Carlson scored on a 5-on-3 power play to tie it 3-3 with 6:59 left in the third period.

Video: WSH@PIT, Gm6: Carlson blasts home PPG to tie it

They appeared destined to force a Game 7 when Jay Beagle dove into the crease behind goaltender Braden Holtby to somehow keep out a Patric Hornqvist shot from below the right circle 2:41 into overtime. The Penguins kept coming, however, and it fittingly ended with Bonino backhanding in a Carl Hagelin rebound from in front.

While the Capitals were holding Sidney Crosby (two assists) and Evgeni Malkin (one goal, one assist) to a combined four points in the series, the Penguins' third line of Hagelin (three goals, four assists), Bonino (two goals, three assists) and Phil Kessel (two goals, four assists) combined for 18 points in the six games.

"We didn't own the big moments," Capitals right wing Justin Williams said. "The margin of error is very small in this league, and they owned the big one tonight."

Ovechkin is the captain and receives much of the attention, positive or negative, because of that. So, when the Capitals end up on the losing end every spring, the tendency is to point the finger of blame at him.

But Ovechkin was among the Capitals' best players every game and was tied with Hagelin for the series lead with seven points (two goals, five assists). T.J. Oshie had five goals and an assist, Nicklas Backstrom had four assists, and Williams lived up to his reputation as a big-game player with three goals and two assists in the last four games.

Too many of the Capitals' other forwards were quiet, though.

"Listen, I'm going to obviously stick up for my captain," Williams said. "He did all the right things, said all the right things. It certainly isn't on him. It's about us as a team not being quite good enough."

Williams has won the Stanley Cup three times in his career, so he knows what the other side of games like the one Tuesday feels like. Ovechkin does not, and with his 31st birthday coming before next season, it would be natural for him to wonder if he'll ever get to experience that.

"When you're in this game, the shelf life in the National Hockey League, if you're a top player, is 10, 12 years, and so when you don't go that far, the window sort of seems like it closes, and if you haven't got past that, it gets frustrating," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. "It does, there's no question, because I think the sense of mortality sets in.

"Just getting into the playoffs is so darn hard. You don't even know if you're going to get to the playoffs next year."

Trotz, 53, has also never been past the second round of the playoffs, so he probably feels his personal clock ticking as well. Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan hired him two years ago to help the Capitals finally break free from their underachieving past.

He knows he hasn't done that, yet.

"We've made some progress, but obviously not enough," Trotz said. "We need to get through this round. That's part of the deal. That will always be thrown at us until we get through that, so we need to do it."

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