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.