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Capitals regret missed opportunities in Game 7 loss to Hurricanes

Defending champions led 2-0 and 3-1 but couldn't close out series

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- The end to the Washington Capitals' reign as Stanley Cup champions came suddenly, but not unexpectedly.

At least not by the time they were deep into the second overtime with the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference First Round at Capital One Arena on Wednesday.

The way the Hurricanes controlled play in both overtime periods, it felt inevitable they would score eventually. Brock McGinn finally did at 11:05 of the second overtime, redirecting Justin Williams' centering feed from the right corner to give Carolina an improbable 4-3 win in the game and the best-of-7 series.

 

[RELATED: Complete Capitals vs. Hurricanes series coverage]

 

The Hurricanes advance to face the New York Islanders in the second round, beginning Friday at Barclays Center (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, CBC, TVAS). The Capitals go home for the summer, ending their repeat bid much earlier than they expected.

"It's kind of a situation where the season is over, and you understand that," Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said. "We fight through 82 (regular-season) games and in Game 7, they score one goal and … you're disappointed. You're frustrated, especially after last year."

Last year, after repeated seasons of Stanley Cup Playoff disappointments, the Capitals finally put it all together and won the Cup for the first time in their 43-season history. A lot of things fell their way, but they also earned it and, with most of their players returning, they believed they could do it again.

Video: CAR@WSH, Gm7: Hurricanes, Caps exchange handshakes

The upstart Hurricanes had other ideas. In their first playoff appearance since 2009, the Hurricanes outplayed the Capitals for most of the series, with the exception of Washington's 6-0 win in Game 5 on Saturday. 

Undeterred after falling behind 2-0 and 3-2 in the series, the Hurricanes kept pushing back. They trailed 1-0 and 2-1 and came back to win 5-2 in Game 6 at Carolina, and came back from 2-0 and 3-1 down to win Game 7 -- the first time a road team won in the series.

"They kept coming the whole time," Capitals goalie Braden Holtby said. "They played a consistent style of hard work, and in the end, that's what beat us. You've got to give credit where credit is due. On paper, you wouldn't expect them to be the team that they are. That's a credit to them and their coaching. They play a team game and that's why the series was so close. We just came on the wrong end of it."

The Capitals appeared to be the more skilled and deeper team on paper, but the Hurricanes won more of the puck battles in the corners and in front of the net. It seemed fitting that McGinn's winning goal came from in front of the net -- knocking Williams' pass out of midair -- because Carolina gave Washington trouble in that area throughout the series.

The Hurricanes' forecheck also gave the Capitals fits in the series, and again Wednesday. It became more magnified in the two overtimes when the Hurricanes forced the Capitals into repeated turnovers that led to scoring chances.

Carolina outshot Washington 18-6 combined in the two overtimes. The Capitals had a few chances, including one from Ovechkin from the right circle that went off goalie Petr Mrazek's mask with 1:50 left in the first overtime, and Jakub Vrana's left-circle shot off the left post 4:42 into the second OT.

Video: Hurricanes oust defending champion Capitals in seven

They also had a power play on Saku Maenalanen's delay of game penalty 2:02 into the second overtime, and didn't manage a shot on goal.

The Hurricanes were the faster team to every loose puck. The Capitals appeared tired after being worn down by the Hurricanes incessant pressure.

"They're hard minutes, and it's a battle" Capitals coach Todd Reirden said. "They worked. They were urgent. They were desperate through seven games and we were inconsistent through the series."

The Capitals' best players delivered. Ovechkin was brilliant at times, and in Game 7 he set up Tom Wilson's goal that made it 2-0 at 6:23 of the first period. Ovechkin led the Capitals with nine points (four goals, five assists) in the series. 

Center Nicklas Backstrom was right behind him, with eight points (five goals, three assists). But the Capitals didn't get enough from others when their depth was supposed to be their strength.

Despite that, the Capitals led by two goals twice in Game 7 and couldn't finish it off. Sebastian Aho's shorthanded goal 9:51 into the second period brought the Hurricanes within 2-1 and gave them life.  

Although Evgeny Kuznetsov put Washington ahead 3-1 at 13:22, Carolina answered again with a goal from Teuvo Teravainen at 16:37 to make it 3-2. Then, Jordan Staal tied it with a right-circle shot past Holtby's blocker 2:56 into the third period, setting up the ending.

"We were up 3-1," Backstrom said. "Looking back at that, we need to find a way to shut them down there or keep them [off] of the scoresheet there."

Video: CAR@WSH, Gm7: Hurricanes, Capitals settle it in 2OT

No doubt, that will stick with the Capitals while they watch the Hurricanes play the Islanders, coached by their former coach Barry Trotz. 

Trotz, who guided Washington to the Stanley Cup last season before leaving when he couldn't agree on a new contract, still has a chance to repeat.

The Capitals will have to start over again next season. Even after winning last season, the thought of that now is painful.

"Every opportunity missed is, you know, devastating, really," defenseman John Carlson said. "I think you only get to do this for so long, and I've been fortunate to be on great teams. It is more than just we were up in the series or the game. It is everything. It hurts."

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