The two most central figures in Capitals hockey for the last two decades sat at their postgame press conferences Friday night donning gray sweatshirts and long, pained expressions.
Their season had ended minutes prior with another crushing loss in overtime, but the focus from Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom was not only centered around the heart-stopping and heartbreaking 4-3 defeat at Capital One Arena in Game 6 of their Stanley Cup playoff series against the Florida Panthers. It was about the previous two games, too.
In their first-round loss, the Capitals blew three straight leads — two of them in the third period of games at home — as the series, and their season, came crashing down at moments right as it seemed Washington had the Panthers firmly in their grasp.
“That’s obviously part of the things that you’ve got to do to be successful in the playoffs,” Backstrom said. “You have to shut down teams. I don’t know what else to say. It’s obviously on us. It’s disappointing.”
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The Panthers were the Presidents’ Trophy winners in the regular season on the back of the league’s best offense, which led the most comeback victories in the sport during the regular season.
In the postseason, the Capitals got an up-close look at what Florida was capable of in the final three games of the series.
In Game 6, the Panthers rallied in the third period with Claude Giroux and Aleksander Barkov goals to take a 3-2 lead after Backstrom pushed the Capitals ahead. T.J. Oshie scored a dramatic power-play goal with 63 seconds left to play to force overtime, but Florida needed just two minutes and 46 seconds of overtime for Carter Verhaeghe to score and push the team to the second round for the first time since 1996.
“I think we’ve been there almost every game,” Ovechkin said. “We got the lead and we blew it away. Especially like after 3-0, even the chance coming back, it was kind of hard but as you see today, it was a huge battle and get the lead, lose it, tie the game. And you know, I didn’t see obviously the (overtime) goal. Maybe bad bounce or something like that, but loss is loss.”
Florida advancing to the second round in just six games, though, especially after Game 3, felt far-fetched.
The Capitals won that third game by a score of 6-1 and led in the dying minutes of Game 4. Then Marcus Johansson was stopped on a breakaway attempt, Garnet Hathaway’s shot to an empty net hit the outside of the cage and the Panthers tied it moments later. Washington lost in overtime as the series drew tied, and instead of a 3-1 series lead it was fighting for the advantage once again in Game 5.
Once the two teams got to Florida for the second time in the series, the Capitals weathered a big push from the Panthers and emerged clean on the other side to take a 3-0 lead in the second period of Game 5. Then Florida scored five goals in a row to win and take the series lead for the first time headed back to Washington for what turned out to be the final game of the season.
Game 6 was no different from the previous two, in that respect, as the Panthers rallied with two third period goals to take a late lead. Oshie’s score in the final seconds just put off the suffering for a few more minutes.
“I mean the last three games have been in our hands at some point in the third, or some point in the game, anyways,” Oshie said. “We were unable to capitalize on all those opportunities. We weren't able to shut the door.”
That’s what made the frustration palpable from Ovechkin, Backstrom, Oshie and John Carlson in their postgame press conferences: The Capitals weren’t wildly outclassed by the Panthers for the entire series. They more than hung with the NHL's best regular-season team.
“I thought our guys played hard, we had opportunities to win and played against a team that proved to be the top team in the league, played ‘em hard,” Washington coach Peter Laviolette said. “The games could have went either way -- they just didn’t go our way. I think that’s the part you’ve got to let sit in your stomach for a while.”
The Capitals lost two overtime games on home ice. They had a lead in five of the six games and lost three of them. And with the series officially complete, it’s clear that Washington, for the most part, played the style it wanted to. It kept Panthers' shots to the outside, their special teams were stellar all series long (Florida did not have a power play goal on 18 chances) and they held the majority of high-danger chances.
But in fitting fashion, the Capitals had the lead twice in Game 6 and gave it up both times. Even with the huge momentum swing of Oshie’s goal to force overtime, there wasn't enough offense to keep up.
“In playoffs, the margin of error is so small,” Oshie said. “One bad bounce or one misread can change the whole momentum of a game. And all of a sudden, thinking you're going to go to their barn up 3-1, [but] it's 2-2. Up 3-0, lose 5-3. Now come here, up 2-1 — I think it was under 10 minutes maybe — and then all of a sudden we're down one in the last couple minutes. Things happen fast, and we just didn't shut the door. There's really no other way to put it.”
It’s not a stretch to imagine a series where Washington closed out Game 4 and headed to Sunrise, Fla. with a 3-1 series lead to face a reeling Panthers team without much confidence. It’s easy to think about a series where the Capitals hang onto a three-goal lead in Game 5 and come to D.C. with a chance to close out Florida on home ice.
Now after Game 6, it’s easy to imagine a scenario where Washington is making flight arrangements to Fort Lauderdale for a win-or-go-home Game 7 where a team loaded with veteran experience has momentum for the final night of the series.
“We had a lot of time where the series was in our hands,” Carlson said. “And I think that stings even more, especially right now. Not much more to say than that.”
The end of the season, in regard to Game 6, was a fitting conclusion to a six-game set where the Capitals came close to, but could never conquer.
And as the Panthers stormed off the bench to mob Verhaeghe and celebrate their series victory in front of a stunned silent crowd at Capital One Arena, it didn’t take much to imagine a scenario where that was the Capitals instead. That’s the part that hurt the most.
“Not just this game, I mean it’s been every game,” Backstrom said. "As we said before, their offense is very good. It doesn’t take a lot to get them going. When they get a goal, they get fired up and then they start rolling. I think we basically gave the series to them.”