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The hardest pill to swallow

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The hardest pill to swallow

The familiarity of an early playoff exit didn't make the Capitals' Game 7 loss in Madison Square Garden any easier Saturday night. First-timers like Braden Holtby got a taste of how history seems to repeat itself each Spring in a cruel fashion for Washington. But for those who had lived through past disappointment and weathered the season-long growing pains of a complete system overhaul, this loss was more devastating than any other.

For the 13th time this postseason the Capitals' night was decided by just one goal. For the sixth time, they came up on the losing end. But it was the first time in recent history that they held opponents to just over two goals per game.

"Last year was painful but we got outplayed," said second-year Capital Matt Hendricks. "I don't necessarily feel we got outplayed in this series. It was tooth and nail at all times, all seven games."

Unlike their last four consecutive berths, Washington failed to capture first place rights in the Southeast and entered as a lowly seven-seed. For the first time since the lockout, no one expected the Capitals to make much noise in the playoffs --something the team used as white board material while toppling the defending Stanley Cup champions and pushing the top-seeded Rangers to a full seven game series.

They looked different. They felt different. They believed this year would be different. So as they stood at their stalls Saturday night staring off beyond the microphones, cameras and faces asking questions they didn't believe they'd be answering, their disappointment was palpable.

Everyone agreed that this was the hardest loss of their Capitals career.

"Last year we were a good team," said Karl Alzner, who saw his first NHL playoff action in Game 7 of 2010's monumental first round collapse. "We had a good record, but there's always something different about losing in seven when you feel you had as good of a team as we did as opposed to last year, where we got swept."

"It's heartbreaking for myself," said Alzner's other defensive half John Carlson, also on finishing his third playoff stint with the Caps. "You have to win. That's everyone's dream. Here, that's what everyone wants to accomplish and that didn't happen."

The loss was also a harsh initiation for 22-year-old netminder Braden Holtby, who sat for several minutes in his stall looking out at a room full of reporters and talking quietly with Capitals PR director Sergey Kocharov before slowly standing to address the media.

While Saturday's Game 7 loss was disappointing for every player in the room. But for Holtby, another missed opportunity still ached more than the recent blow.

"We were very confident in ourselves this playoffs and that's how the series goes. It's six seconds in Game 5. That was the difference and it happens," said Holtby before offering a silver lining. "We had a very strong team, and especially a lot building forward."

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How former Capital Sergei Gonchar helped the Penguins win Game 1

How former Capital Sergei Gonchar helped the Penguins win Game 1

Hockey is a game of organized chaos.

Sure, pucks can take some unexpected bounces, but a lot of what you see on the ice doesn’t happen by accident.

Trailing 2-0 early in the third period of Game 1, Patric Hornqvist got the Pittsburgh Penguins on the board with a deflection that scuttled past Braden Holtby. You may dismiss the play at first glance as a lucky deflection off a wide shot, but it actually was much more coordinated than that.

The play starts with defenseman Justin Schultz holding the puck at the blue line. He buys time, sees Hornqvist and fires a wrister at the net. The shot is not going on net, but the net isn’t the target.

You can see the play here:

Schultz is specifically aiming to put the puck in a position for Hornqvist to deflect it on goal.

“Justin does a great job just changing his angle, having some patience and just delivering pucks down to the net that gives our forwards an opportunity to get a stick on it,” head coach Mike Sullivan said after the game.

According to the coach, it is a play the Penguins practice daily and one that is reminiscent of former Capital Sergei Gonchar who routinely made smart plays from the blue line to set up his teammates.

Gonchar was one of the top offensive defensemen in the league over a playing career that spanned from 1994 to 2015. He recorded 811 points in his NHL career, 416 of which came during his 10 seasons with Washington.

Now, however, he serves as an assistant coach for the Penguins helping the defensemen practice plays just like the one Schultz made to set up Hornqvist.

“Sergei is so good at helping those guys with the subtleties of the game and just those little skill sets along the offensive blue line,” Sullivan said. "I don't know that there was anybody better in his generation than Sergei was and he does a great job at relaying some of those subtitles to our guys and those guys, they work at it daily.”

Deflections are obviously very difficult for a goalie to handle. It is nearly impossible to react to the puck’s mid-air change of direction. A goalie has to be positioned perfectly to make the save. It also gives shooters at the blue line more targets. Rather than shooting just at the 42x78 inches of the net, players can shoot on net or in the shooting lane of any of their teammates anywhere on the ice. Essentially, the entire offensive zone becomes a potential target.

There’s a reason the Penguins have been as good as they are for as long as they have. They are not getting lucky bounces, they are creating their own deflections thanks in part to the expertise of the former Cap.

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3 reasons why the Caps lost to the Penguins in Game 1

3 reasons why the Caps lost to the Penguins in Game 1

If you had to boil down the playoff history of the Washinton Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins into one game, Game 1 certainly seemed to fit the bill.

The Capitals had their chances, they got good performances from star players and all of it came to naught as they were once again foiled by the Penguins in a 3-2 loss.

Here's Washington let this game slip away.

3 Reasons Why the Capitals lost Game 1 to the Penguins:

1. Missed chances

The Caps were buzzing in the first period.

Already up 1-0, Dmitry Orlov and Alex Ovechkin had an opportunity to add a second goal early on a 2-on-1. Orlov faked the shot then passed to Ovechkin who had a wide open net to shoot at…but he missed. Ovechkin doesn’t miss too many of those shots. Despite how good the Caps looked in the first period, they got only six pucks through to goalie Matt Murray and took only a 1-0 lead into the dressing room. In the second period, Devante Smith-Pelly was denied an empty net rebound by Murray (more on that later). We all knew the push was coming. We’ve seen this all play out before.

Simply put, Washington did not convert on its opportunities when they had control of the game. A two-goal cushion was not enough to take the wind out of Pittsburgh's sails nor was it enough to survive the three-goal flurry that was to come.

2. A five-minute snowball in the third period

When the push finally came, it came fast.

In a stretch that lasted for less than five minutes, Pittsburgh scored three times to turn a 2-0 Caps lead into a 3-2 deficit. Patrick Hornqvist deflected in a shot from Justin Schultz at 2:59, Sidney Crosby netted a pass from Jake Guentzel at 5:20 and Guentzel got a deflection goal of his own at 7:48. That is a span of 4:49. Pittsburgh’s momentum snowballed into three quick goals which carried them to the win.

Braden Holtby was brilliant for 55:11, but those 4:49 were enough to doom the Caps.

3. Matt Murray

As good as Holtby was, Murray was better. Despite allowing a goal just 17 seconds in, he recovered very well in what was a 32-save performance. You can put some of this game on Washington’s inability to convert on its chances, but you also have to give credit to the Penguins’ netminder as well who came up with some big-time saves to keep his team in it. The biggest was in the second period when he extended the arm and blocked what looked like an easy goal for Smith-Pelly with the glove of his blocker.

As hard as it was to beat Murray when the Caps were ahead, he was unbeatable when his team finally gave him a lead to work with.

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