They kept coming and coming and coming. Firing shots from every possible angle and beating the Montreal Canadiens to pucks along the walls, behind the net and at both ends of the ice.
They were frantic and focused, at once showing signs of pure desperation and utter urgency. And if the Washington Capitals had managed to do that any earlier in this Eastern Conference quarterfinals series for the ages, they would be moving on instead of going home after just seven playoff games. But for the most part, the Caps played this series like they didn’t believe they could lose, ratcheting things up only when their backs were against the wall and when it was simply too late.
This 2-1 loss in the series finale wasn’t the way it was supposed to go down for the Presidents’ Trophy winners. Not after they wrapped up a playoff spot by New Year’s, not after they claimed a division title soon after and certainly not after displaying an offense so explosive, it was often compared to those great Wayne Gretzky-, Mark Messier-led Edmonton Oilers of the early 1980s.
Truth is everything was in place for this team to emulate that one, except for the one major difference that ultimately become too big to overcome. Those Oilers knew what it takes to win at playoff time. These Capitals don’t. And judging by the disillusioning way they’ve fallen so short in the last three seasons, they may never learn. Not when they found a way to collapse in the most humiliating way possible.
“We all know we have a pretty good team, but we didn’t win when we have to win,” said Washington captain Alex Ovechkin.
It wasn’t the first time either. Remember last spring when they forced the Pittsburgh Penguins back to Washington for a Game 7 and came unglued? This time might have been worse.
Think about it. Washington now has the dubious distinction of being the first top seed to lose to an eighth seed after leading a series 3-1. Three of the losses came at home where the Caps had the league’s best record yet managed to hold leads for less than seven minutes all told. And against a team that effectively backed its way into the playoffs and spent much of the series in survival mode.
If that weren’t enough, consider that the big concern Washington had coming into this post season – goaltending – actually turned out to be the best part of its game. Instead, biggest problem turned out their inability to score both at even strength, and more disconcerting on their league-best power play which connected only once on 33 tries in the series.
The Capitals flashed their skills to be sure. The gained access repeatedly into Montreal’s zone, generated chances and managed an overwhelming number of shots both in the clincher and throughout the series. But in the end they succumbed to a problem that must have reminded Ovechkin of his demoralizing and frustrating experience at the recent Olympics.
Ovechkin’s Russians were picked by many to win that tournament as well, but didn’t even medal because their remarkably talented lineup, according to no less an authority than hockey legend Igor Larionov, turned out to be a collection of individuals instead of a team. Just like the Capitals and very much unlike the Canadiens.
Montreal was stunning in this series, in no small part because of the lights-out play by Jaroslav Halak. He didn’t get much offense to work with – in the finale the Canadiens managed only one goal by Marc-Andre Bergeron until Dominic Moore provided a bit of a cushion late in the third period, but Montreal kept moving as a five-man unit, chipping pucks into spots that made sense and keeping mistakes and turnovers to a minumum. Still the 24-year-old netminder, a backup until midseason, channeled the spirits of great Montreal playoff goalies like Ken Dryden, Patrick Roy and Jacques Plante as he led the Canadiens back from the brink.
Halak faced 134 shots over the final three games, allowing only three goals and clearly got into the heads of the Washington shooters. When he didn’t, team in front of him got in the way of their shots, blocking a sick total of 41 in the deciding game.
“They have a lot of good shooters and can change the game with one shot, so you kind of try to be on everything,” said Montreal defenseman Hal Gill, who partnered with Josh Georges to form a superb shutdown unit throughout the series.
Maybe it would have helped had Caps bench boss Bruce Boudreau not been so badly outcoached by Montreal counterpart Jacques Martin, especially in Game 7 when he had the last line change being at home. But Boudreau couldn’t find ways of getting Ovechkin away from the Gill-Georges tandem, and he couldn’t impress upon his team the need to avoid their east-west tendencies in favor of heading north south. Martin made adjustments as the series went on, shortened his bench when necessary and came up with a Game 7 win for the first time in his career.
Boudreau, meanwhile lost a seventh game for the third time in four tries, and will face questions about his future and that of a roster that seems built for regular season success rather than in the playoffs. And he knows it.
“We all feel pretty low,” Boudreau said when it was over. “I thought we had a good chance to win the Stanley Cup and I would have bet my house they won’t beat us three in a row or that we would we would have have scored only three goals in like 140 shots.
“They played a perfect game and I thought we played a perfect game for the most part too, but sometimes you just don’t score goals. Give Montreal credit.”
And the ticket Washington should have had to the next round.