Friday, June 22, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Capitals' Game 7 defeat may have also been the last great hope of the Ovechkin era

WASHINGTON — The boos started in Verizon Center with 33.5 seconds left to play and all hope gone — again. The wave of disappointment from Washington fans, to give them credit, was not terribly loud, a kind of ritual admonition administered annually with only middling conviction to the incorrigible child of America pro sports: the Washington Capitals.

The punishment perfectly fit the crime because the Caps played with merely middling conviction themselves in their season-ending 2-0 loss to Pittsburgh in Game 7 of their second-round Stanley Cup playoff series, the exact postseason juncture at which this pupil with "A" talent almost always hands in a "D" paper on the final exam.

Some of the red-clad Caps fans trickled out of Verizon during a last, desperate, pathetically pointless Washington timeout. But the huge majority stayed seated. Who has the bad manners to stand up and walk out before the funeral is finished?

This was, indeed, a funeral for hockey hope. The Caps — who claimed publicly long ago that they would win multiple Stanley Cups in their Alex Ovechkin Era, and who were predicted to win the Cup often, including this year — may never be so strong again. Or face a central foe so wounded as the Pens, who were without their best goalie; their best defenseman, Kris Letang, and, in Game 7, useful veterans defenseman Trevor Daley and wing Carl Hagelin, too.

Unless the NHL had allowed the Caps to get hydraulic lifts to literally lift the rink and tilt the ice toward the Pens goal, Washington couldn't have had a better setup for its ultimate redemption opportunity.

As an extra penalty, the Caps get to gaze at the highway strewn with rose petals that the Pens now have ahead of them for consecutive Cups. Next, the Pens meet the Ottawa Senators, who were outscored in the regular season. The best in the Western Conference, the Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild, are already out.

"It's just extreme disappointment," said distinguished veteran Karl Alzner, an almost indestructible defenseman who is a free agent and presumably will be paid more to play elsewhere next season. "We honestly thought we were the best team in the playoffs, and we showed it in (flashes). But the second-round (exit) again …

"Maybe there's something deep down that guys feel. Every year, we change (players) and say it's a 'new team.' But maybe there is something deep down … but I don't feel it personally."

"Lot of new faces next year. It's going to be a different team," defenseman Brooks Orpik said. But he didn't mean it in the familiar "we'll be better" sense. This was supposed to be the all-in, best-we'll-ever-make-it Caps team. Now, they're all out.

Everything worth doing is hard. But everything hard is not worth doing.

That defines the difference between being a Capital and being a fan of the Caps.

If you play for this almost mighty but ultimately still miserable NHL franchise, you still have a career, you may make a fortune and, even if you lose, you were still one of the gladiators in the arena, not just a watcher.

So, there's little need for much sympathy for the Caps right now. This defeat, in the supreme tension-packed game that was supposed to end jinxes and ignite a stampede toward a Stanley Cup victory, may be seen in retrospect as the beginning of the end of an elite 12-season era built around Alex Ovechkin.

In an irony so galling that it was quintessential Caps, Ovechkin was on the ice for both Pens goals; but he was surrounded by unfamiliar company thanks to his demotion to the third line by coach Barry Trotz before Game 6. The strategy that helped the Caps get back in this series with wins in Games 5 and 6 was a bust in this final battle as the first line of Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and young Andre Burakovsky either mishandled passes near the Pens' goal or missed their short attempts from inside 10 feet completely.

As soon as Bryan Rust scored the first Pens goal in the second period, the Caps' response was to act as if the Pittsburgh net was smaller than a matchbox. When Rust turned the goal light red, the scoreboard said "11:11," perhaps appropriate for the defending champion Pens, who will now be huge favorites to win a third Cup in the era of Sidney Crosby, the superstar who has always trumped Ovechkin when it mattered most.

A franchise that has no Stanley Cup victories finished this game with no goals, either. That galling and symbolic "0" summarizes the feeling of zero-at-the-bone that, for months and maybe years, will chill the heart of any fan who recalls this night when all demons were supposed to be exorcised and instead more were born.

If the healthy Caps, who had many advantages over the injured Pens in this series, evoke chilly feelings, then truckloads of sympathy should be reserved for the fans of this bizarre team that is simultaneously wonderful and woebegone.

Those fans wear their Red to the rafters. And they rock the place. They scream themselves hoarse. They wear, and pay for, the jerseys of not just the stars but the backup goaltender and the team enforcer. Some have followed the franchise for 42 years. Others have come aboard in the last dozen years of the Great Eight or even the last two years of back-to-back regular season Presidents' Trophies.

They are all, roughly speaking, equally miserable now. All of them ask, if not this year, when?

As for management, they've tried almost everything. But there are penalties to pay for even the best-intentioned failures. When the ticket office opens — t-o-m-o-r-r-o-w — the Caps will hold their breath to see the pace of season ticket cancellations or reductions.

In honor of this nearly annual disaster, which began in earnest with a blown two-game lead in 1985, we offer the mandatory Caps wisecrack.

What does the design of the home of every Cap of the last generation have in common?

None of their houses have a kitchen.

Because they just can't stand the heat.

For the past two years, the best defense of the Capitals is that the true Stanley Cup final may have been played in the second round when Washington met Pittsburgh. If that offers consolation, then hold it tight.

But in the Capitals' locker room, nobody was buying such comforts. Even though the Caps play on ice, they still melt every time. As their seasons end, their faces seem to melt, too, in an all-to-familiar scene of sorrow that blends into a kind of blank disbelieving stare.

"Tonight, we were hoping … " Alzner said. Then he stopped.

This was the night when the best hope the Capitals have ever had produced a big, fat ugly goose egg and expired.

Comments
Lightning re-signs backup goalie Louis Domingue to 2-year deal

Lightning re-signs backup goalie Louis Domingue to 2-year deal

The Lightning has re-signed one of its restricted free agents in backup goalie Louis Domingue, who will be back with Tampa Bay on a two-year deal worth $2.3 million.Domingue, 26, was acquired from Arizona in November after he had posted a 4.33 goals-...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Lightning names ex-player Jeff Halpern as new assistant coach

Lightning names ex-player Jeff Halpern as new assistant coach

The Lightning has filled one of the openings on Jon Cooper's coaching staff, announcing Friday  that former Tampa Bay forward Jeff Halpern has been hired as an assistant coach.Halpern, 42, has spent the past two seasons as an assistant with the ...
Updated: 4 hours ago
Steve Yzerman: Lightning won’t re-sign forward Chris Kunitz

Steve Yzerman: Lightning won’t re-sign forward Chris Kunitz

As expected, Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman said he does not intend to re-sign veteran forward Chris Kunitz, who will seek his fifth Stanley Cup with a different team next season.Kunitz, 38, brought much-needed playoff experience in his lone...
Updated: 5 hours ago
Live blog: 2018 NHL entry draft

Live blog: 2018 NHL entry draft

The Lightning isn't scheduled to pick until the second round, but there's no telling how active they might be with trades, so you'll want to follow our live coverage throughout the NHL draft Friday (Round 1) and Saturday (Rounds 2-7) in Dallas.(funct...
Updated: 2 hours ago
2018-19 schedule unveiled: Lightning opens with five straight at home

2018-19 schedule unveiled: Lightning opens with five straight at home

NHL schedules all balance out at the end, but the Lightning will open 2018-19 with five straight home games and end the season with its last four on the road.The Lightning released its schedule Thursday evening for the upcoming season, with all sorts...
Updated: 9 hours ago
Without a first-rounder, Lightning still could have busy draft weekend

Without a first-rounder, Lightning still could have busy draft weekend

The Lightning doesn't have a first-round pick in this weekend's draft, but that's not to say the weekend couldn't be busy for general manager Steve Yzerman and his front office.The Lightning sent its top draft pick to the Rangers in February as part ...
Published: 06/21/18
Islanders hire Barry Trotz as coach fresh off winning Stanley Cup

Islanders hire Barry Trotz as coach fresh off winning Stanley Cup

DALLAS — The New York Islanders have hired Barry Trotz as their new head coach. President of hockey operations Lou Lamoriello announced the move Thursday at the NHL draft, two weeks after Trotz won the Stanley Cup with the Washington Capitals and thr...
Published: 06/21/18
Lightning’s Victor Hedman salutes survivors in Norris Trophy acceptance speech

Lightning’s Victor Hedman salutes survivors in Norris Trophy acceptance speech

The victims and survivors of three tragedies — the mass shootings in Las Vegas and at Parkland Stoneman Douglas High School, and the bus accident that killed 16 members of the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team — were a big part of Wedne...
Published: 06/21/18
Lightning’s Victor Hedman wins NHL’s Norris Trophy

Lightning’s Victor Hedman wins NHL’s Norris Trophy

Victor Hedman, a relentless part of the Lightning's push to the Eastern Conference final last season, was honored Wednesday night with the Norris Trophy, given to the NHL's top defenseman."To the Lightning organization, Mr. Jeff Vinik, Steve Yzerman ...
Published: 06/20/18
Lightning announce home opener: Oct. 6 vs. Panthers

Lightning announce home opener: Oct. 6 vs. Panthers

The Tampa Bay Lightning will announce their full 2018-19 schedule on Thursday, but the league announced each home opener Wednesday, with Tampa Bay playing host to the Florida Panthers at Amalie Arena on Saturday, Oct. 6.The Lightning will know their ...
Published: 06/20/18