Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (8) and Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) shake hands after game six of the second round of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs at the CONSOL Energy Center. (Reuters)
PITTSBURGH — In September, when players returned from yet another prolonged summer of soul-searching, the Washington Capitals distributed amongst themselves a number of red ballcaps, each stitched in white with a simple slogan.
Stick to the script.
It was conjured as a reminder that, if there were no deviations from their carefully constructed plan, the Capitals should finally seize their ever-fleeting goal of winning the Stanley Cup. They retooled in the offseason, incorporating actors they perceived would make them title contenders, and navigated a path over the last eight months that led them to haughtily believe it.
Yet, at the time, they did not consider that irony hung so boldly on the lids’ marquee. For years, the Capitals have indeed followed the script, rehearsing a performance every spring that would never satisfy their audience. Its final act always concluded in defeat after just two rounds — an outcome more piercing than satire, more paradoxical than tragedy.
Transcendent works are remembered for their impact, and this one, just so: The Capitals‘ greatest postseason failure was agonizingly realized on Tuesday, an exit after a 4-3 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the sixth game of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Nick Bonino delivered the final strike, depositing a rebound past Braden Holtby at 6:32 of extra time that sent the masses into euphoria. Holtby remained face-down as the horn sounded, his arms and legs splayed out in surrender. On the bench, Alex Ovechkin spit out his gum, unfastened his chin strap and muttered to himself before rising for the customary handshake line.
“It hurts,” Justin Williams said.
“It sucks,” underscored Ovechkin.
For months, coach Barry Trotz had preached the importance of taking comfort in the uncomfortable, believing a sound mind and loose body were more conducive to success. They had won 22 games during the regular season in which they allowed the first goal — just as many as they had lost. They were victorious in 12 of the 25 games in which they trailed after two periods. Twice, they recovered from three-goal deficits to win.
On Tuesday morning, when the intensity of the game had clearly struck those in the Penguins’ dressing room, Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov sat in his, cracking self-effacing jokes about his lack of playoff production. Ninety minutes before the puck was dropped, a number of players could be heard whooping and hollering while kicking a soccer ball near, and into, a garage door on the arena floor.
Ancient history was to be ignored, Trotz stressed, overlooking theCapitals‘ dismal postseason past, but recent happenings, he thought, could provide lessons. A year ago, he had tried to raise his players’ heads by prodding them with positivity. “Defeat is not your undertaker. It should be your teacher,” he had said then. They would set a franchise record with 56 wins and capture the Presidents’ Trophy for the second time.
Again, the script.
Pittsburgh had not lost consecutive games in four months and reversed course after Mike Sullivan replaced Mike Johnston as coach in mid-December. A listless team suddenly grew lively, surging into the playoff picture, winning 14 of its 16 regular-season games and taking care of the New York Rangers in five games in the first round.
A recovery from a three-goal hole seemed improbable, even as T.J. Oshie swung so hard on his second-period power play goal that he fell to the ice and as Williams waited out goaltending sensation Matt Murray and picked his spot in the third period. Then it nearly happened, with John Carlson scoring on five-on-three play almost six minutes later by three penalties on the Penguins for sending the puck over the glass in a span of 2:02.
“We’ve been doing that all year,” Holtby said, “and it just kind of bit us tonight that we spotted them three goals.”
Defenseman Karl Alzner aggravated a groin injury in the opening minutes and could not finish the game. The Penguins’ speed and control of the neutral zone were, on the whole, suffocating. Murray, the 21-year-old, posed a riddle Washington struggled to solve.
Once it all had ended, as red equipment bags were stacked on a cart outside the dressing room and balls of tape and half-full water bottles rested on the benches inside it, Matt Niskanen was the lone player who remained in his stall, hunched over in disbelief.
So many times during the course of the series, the Capitals believed they had played a better game than their opponent, foiled only by the crooked digit hanging higher than theirs on the scoreboard. So many times, they had spent their summer months picking through the memories of yet another catastrophe, hoping to find a solution to what went wrong.
So many times the script, painstakingly and painfully, has been followed.