It was a depressingly familiar scene on Thursday as the Washington Capitals gathered at Kettler Capitals Iceplex after failing to live up to postseason expectations yet again. When the players spoke, however, it became clear that this year’s loss was anything but familiar.
Let’s face it, the Caps have been here before. Washington has failed to get past the second round of the playoffs since 1998 including eight playoff campaigns in the Alex Ovechkin era.
But this year felt different. It did to the fans, it did to the media and it especially did to the players. That was evident on Thursday as each player describing this year’s loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“I think this is probably the toughest one,” Marcus Johansson said.
“This is by far the toughest, for sure,” Jay Beagle said. “We've had great teams in the past and the expectation is always to win the Cup, but this year, mentally, it was going all the way. We weren't expecting to leave. It hurts.”
The recent history of this team is unfortunately full of embarrassing losses in the playoffs. They lost in Game 7 to Pittsburgh in a 6-2 blowout in 2009, were shocked by Jaroslav Halak and Montreal Canadiens in 2010, got swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2011, lost another Game 7 in blowout fashion (5-0) to the New York Rangers in 2013 and blew a 3-1 series lead to the Rangers in 2015.
And yet it was this year, losing in six games to Pittsburgh, that cuts the deepest.
“It's not like any I've ever experienced before,” Braden Holtby said. “It's just the potential that we had in our group and the belief in what we were trying to accomplish was not like any other team I've been on before. It's tough.”
“It just felt different,” John Carlson said. “It felt like everyone was suiting up. I don't know the right way to describe it. It was by far the hardest and stings the most and hurts and will hurt for a long time. I think we had something really special.”
No one, however, looked or sounded more devastated than Matt Niskanen.
The veteran defenseman looked emotional as he stood at the podium talking to reporters. He spoke slowly and softly, thoughtfully answering each question. When asked about this year’s loss, Niskanen did not hold back.
“This is the most hurt I've been in my career,” he said. “You don't know how often opportunities are going to come along where you have this kind of team. You don't. Things happen, rosters change, momentum changes. I've been on some teams where you got a pretty good chance and because of the people on your team you think you always have a chance, but this sure felt like the year. It hurts right now.”
It’s tough to get players to agree on much. Each person brings their own perspective to every situation. When asked what was the deciding factor for the Penguins, some players said speed, others said goaltending and still others said puck luck.
But to a man, all the players said this was the toughest playoff loss they’ve ever felt and you could tell by the way they spoke and the looks on their faces that each one of them meant it.
Said Johansson, “I think we all wanted and expected more from us. There's nothing more to say. It sucks.”
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