Tough Pill – A week ago tonight, the Capitals were one goal away from taking a 3-0 chokehold in their Eastern Conference Semifinal series with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Tonight, the Caps were unceremoniously ushered out of the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs after a humbling 6-2 beatdown on home ice Wednesday.
A series that featured so much drama, so many close games, so many changes of momentum and the lead ended anticlimactically along with Washington’s 2008-09 season.
“I really can’t put into words exactly what happened tonight,” said Caps defenseman Brian Pothier. “Honestly, I don’t know. We didn’t have good legs. We didn’t make good passes. We did a lot of things wrong. I don’t think it was lack of effort.
“You have these games during the regular season where nothing goes right for you and it seems like everyone on the team’s legs are in quicksand and the puck just blows up every time it touches your stick. You rarely see that in the playoffs, nevermind a Game 7 of a pretty phenomenal series.”
The Caps were in this one for just over half of the first period, right up until Shaone Morrisonn went off for an ill-advised slashing call at 11:29 of the first. Just over a minute later, the Penguins’ Sidney Crosby scored a power play goal to give his team a 1-0 lead.
And then the floodgates began to open.
Craig Adams scored his first ever Stanley Cup playoff goal (in his 13th career postseason game) just eight seconds after Crosby’s goal, giving the Pens a 2-0 lead.
Washington mustered nothing in the way of offense the rest of the period; the Pens had a 11-1 advantage in shots on goal after the Morrisonn foul. Varlamov made eight straight stops after Adams’ goal.
Puck management had been a problem for the Caps throughout the series and it came to the fore at the worst time. Washington committed a staggering total of 11 first-period giveaways in Wednesday’s Game 7 while Pittsburgh had none during the same span. The Caps also continued to force shots and passes, another bad habit that dogged them periodically throughout the season and in this series in particular.
As poorly as they played over the last half of the first, the game was not out of hand at that point. But the Caps again came out flat in the second, and that was ultimately their death knell.
The Penguins’ Bill Guerin scored just 28 seconds into the middle frame, giving Pittsburgh a 3-0 lead and all the goals it would need on this night. Guerin’s goal marked the first time either team had owned a lead of as much as three goals at any point in the series. The Penguins would lead by at least three goals the rest of the way.
Less than two minutes later, Kris Letang put an end to Varlamov’s strong postseason run when he beat the Caps rookie goaltender high on the short, glove side.
Having allowed goals on consecutive shots for the second time in the game and having surrendered four goals on 18 shots overall, Varlamov was pulled in favor of Jose Theodore at that point, 2:13 into the second.
Washington added a couple of window-dressing goals later in the game, but didn’t score its first goal until the Pens had already forged a 5-0 lead.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow,” said Caps center Brooks Laich. “We did a lot of good things this year, but this game tonight is the way the season is going to be remembered. And it’s a shame because I thought a lot of our players did a lot of really good things and as an organization I thought we did a lot of good things. It’s a sour note along there.”
The Capitals finished the postseason squarely even at 7-7. They were 4-4 on Verizon Center ice after having started the 2008-09 regular season by going 18-1-1 in their first 20 home games.
“If you look at the game tonight,” said Laich, “they were more composed with the puck. And the other thing that they did, and the reason they won the game is because they outworked us. It’s not easy to stand in front of you guys and say that we were outworked on our own building in Game 7.
“Winning is a science. You have to learn how to do it. It’s the same as losing. When you lose, you learn from it. But it takes a lot to learn how to win. That team has done it before. They made it to the [Stanley Cup] finals last year. They are a very good hockey team. Tonight, they beat us.”
Almost Halfway – For Washington, this was the longest a hockey season had run since the 1997-98 team advanced into the Stanley Cup finals and played into the month of June.
On this date in 1998, the Caps defeated the Ottawa Senators on the road by a 2-0 count in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semifinal series. That win gave the Caps a 3-1 lead in the series, and they clinched the set with a home ice win over the Senators two nights later.
That 1998 series with Ottawa and this year’s first-round set with the Rangers are the only two Stanley Cup playoff series the Caps have ever clinched on Verizon Center ice since the building opened in Dec. 1997.
Game 7 – Pittsburgh is now 6-4 all-time in Game 7 while Washington falls to 2-7. Coming into this Game 7, all home teams in NHL history had won 63% of Game 7 contests. The Caps, however, are 2-5 (29%) in Game 7 on home ice and 0-3 in Game 7 against the Penguins. This was the third straight Game 7 in which Washington scored exactly two goals.
A First – The Capitals have now played a total of 182 playoff games in their history. Tonight’s game marked the first time ever that they did not have a single power play in a playoff game. It was also the only time all season – a total of 92 games including the regular season – that the Caps did not have a single man-advantage opportunity during the game.
For the series, Pittsburgh had 34 power plays to Washington’s 19. The Penguins had 14 first-period power plays to Washington’s 10, they had a 7-6 edge over the Caps in second-period power plays, and Pittsburgh owned a whopping 13-3 bulge in third-period power plays for the series.
Great Eight – Alex Ovechkin scored his 11th goal of the postseason in Game 7 and finished with points in every game of this series (14 points in seven games). He had 11 goals in his last 11 games of the 2009 playoffs. Ovechkin now has 10 points (six goals, four assists) in nine elimination games in his career.
Grisly History – This series marks the fourth time the Caps have been two games up on the Penguins in a playoff series, but have failed to win it. The Capitals had 3-1 series leads over the Penguins in the 1992 and 1995 Stanley Cup playoffs, but lost three straight games and the series on both occasions.
The Caps led their 1996 Stanley Cup playoff series with Pittsburgh 2-0 but lost in six games and led this year’s series 2-0 before bowing out in seven.
Washington is now 17-15 all-time in Games 1-4 against the Penguins in the Stanley Cup playoffs and an almost unfathomable 2-15 against the Pens in Games 5-7.
Lead Changes – During Washington’s first-round series with the New York Rangers, there were a total of two lead changes in the seven-game set. In the second-round series between the Capitals and the Penguins, there were nine lead changes including at least one in each of the first six games. There were three lead changes in Game 6 alone.
First Follies – The Caps were outshot 12-1 in the last half of the first period in Wednesday’s Game 7. In the final two games of this series, Pittsburgh outshot Washington 34-10 in the first period.
Streak Snapped – Caps center Nicklas Backstrom did not record a point in Wednesday’s Game 7. It was the first game in the series in which Backstrom did not record a point, and it snapped his club record streak for consecutive games with a point at nine.
Hot Stick – Pittsburgh’s Crosby proved to be too much for the Caps to contain in this series. He recorded eight goals and 13 points in the seven-game set against Washington, and had five multiple-point nights along the way. Seven of his eight goals came from in close, right around the top of the crease or below.
Defense Disparity – Pittsburgh got six goals and 21 points from its defensemen in this series while Washington blueliners chipped in with one goal and nine points in the seven games.