PITTSBURGH -- There are single moments that define hockey games and, ultimately, playoff series. Capitals fans know this all too well.
Joel Ward will be remembered as much for his double minor for high sticking Carl Hagelin in Game 5 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Rangers as he will for his series-clinching overtime goal against the Bruins two weeks earlier.
Veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik will suffer the same ignominy following a very similar transgression early in the second period of the Capitals’ season-ending 4-3 overtime loss to the Penguins at Consol Energy Center Tuesday night.
Orpik got tangled up with Penguins right wing Patric Hornqvist and as the two parted, Orpik’s stick blade carved a notch into the left side of Hornqvist’s bearded face. The referees had no choice but to give the Penguins a four-minute power play with 6:25 gone in the second period.
And just as the Rangers did in 2012, the Pens made the Caps pay.
Already leading 1-0 on Phil Kessel’s first-period goal, the Penguins received power-play goals from Kessel and, ironically, Hagelin just 33 seconds apart to take a 3-0 lead.
But the Capitals pulled off their own version of the Immaculate Resuscitation, getting a goal from T.J. Oshie late in the second period and third-period goals from Justin Williams and John Carlson to silence the crowd and breathe life into the Capitals fan base.
It all ended 6:32 into overtime when Nick Bonino hammered a Carl Hagelin rebound past Braden Holtby to give the Penguins a 4-3 victory and end the Capitals’ Presidents’ Trophy winning season.
The timing of Orpik’s penalty was not as dramatic as Ward’s double minor four years ago -- which resulted in Brad Richards tying the game and Marc Staal winning it before Ward was released from the box – but the impact was no less damning.
Orpik was a symbol of the Capitals’ rebirth two years ago under Barry Trotz. That rebirth gave Caps fans renewed enthusiasm and excitement and a true belief things would be different for their favorite hockey team.
It almost was.
The Caps showed incredible fortitude and resiliency, playing much of the game without defenseman Karl Alzner, who played just 5:16 after suffering a groin injury early in the game. But in the end the Penguins were literally one goal better, outscoring the Caps 16-15 in the series.
And so here we are. Again.
The Capitals have reached the playoffs in eight of their last nine seasons with Alex Ovechkin. They have been eliminated in the first round three times and in the second round five times.
Many would look at this season, if not as a failure, than as a bitter disappointment. This was a team lauded as perhaps the best in franchise history.
And in the regular season, it was. But not in the playoffs.
Simply put, the Penguins were better when they had to be. The two teams entered Game 6 with 12 goals each. But when it came right down to it, 21-year-old rookie netminder Matt Murray outplayed Vezina Trophy finalist Braden Holtby. Even if it was by just one goal.
Against a Penguins team that has not lost back-to-back games since mid-January, the Capitals needed Holtby to be nearly perfect in the first period Tuesday night and he wasn’t.
With 5:41 gone in the contest, Kessel came down the left wing and unleashed a 43-foot snap shot through the legs of the Caps’ leading shot blocker Karl Alzner.
Holtby reacted late on the shot, which beat him just inside the short side post for Kessel’s fourth goal of the playoffs and first goal of the series.
Then came the two nails in the coffin. Forty seconds after Orpik was escorted to the penalty box Kessel found open space in front of Holtby and outwaited him to make it 2-0. Thirty-three seconds later Hagelin redirected an Olli Maatta shot past Holtby and the rout was on.
T.J. Oshie got the Caps on the board with his team-high sixth goal of the playoffs with 1:30 remaining in the second period, but Murray made his biggest stop of the game just 20 seconds into the final period when he closed his pads on an Andre Burakovsky breakaway.
The Caps fought their way back to tie the score with third-period goals by Williams and Carlson, but they simply ran out of gas on a night when Carlson played 33:12 and Matt Niskanen played 30:55.
And now comes an offseason filled with questions.
The Capitals were rebuilt with a three- or four-year window to win. Everyone from team owner Ted Leonsis and general manager Brian MacLellan to the players themselves have acknowledged as much.
Many of those same players will be back next season to renew their quest to finally get past the second round. But for now, next season seems like years away.