NEW YORK – The pain was evident in the whispered voice of Alex Ovechkin.
It was evident in the long and painful handshake line, which remains one of the most poignant traditions in sport.
It was evident in the watery eyes of Joel Ward and in the heartfelt words of Troy Brouwer.
Yes, there was anger. Jason Chimera’s shattered stick, splintered on the cinderblock wall that leads to the visiting dressing room, was evidence of that.
But mostly there was disappointment, a genuine feeling that they could have and should have been preparing to play the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Finals.
“Look at the trainers’ faces,” Brouwer said late Wednesday night in the quiet aftermath of the Capitals’ 2-1 overtime loss to the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. “They’re just as disappointed as the players are. We’re a big family in here and we do everything together. Nobody feels worse than anybody else. Nobody feels more disappointed than anybody else. We’re all in this together … and now we’re not.”
Instead of exorcising the demons of their past – a past that includes 10 blown two-game series leads – the Capitals will spend today wondering once again how they allowed a 3-1 series lead slip through their gloved fingers.
How they were 101 seconds away from finishing off the Rangers in five games and failed to close the door.
“It’s hard,” Caps defenseman Karl Alzner said. “You rarely lose in the playoffs with your heads held high because you’re so frustrated. But at the same time, it was the best team in the league all year long pretty much and we had them close to elimination for three straight games. When you look at it that way you can be somewhat happy with that, but we think we’re a pretty good team and probably would have advanced.”
While the Caps lost the series on Derek Stepan’s fortuitous overtime goal in Game 7, which came after a Dan Girardi slapshot appeared to carom off he skate of Caps defenseman Brooks Orpik, they gave the Rangers the incentive they needed when Chris Kreider scored with 1:41 remaining in Game 5 at the Garden.
“Tonight is one you remember more,” Alzner said of the Game 7 defeat. “But that other one [Game 5] is the one you kind of look back on and think what could have been.”
That is the lament of Capitals fans who know disappointment as well as a family member. In their 40-year history, the Capitals have been to the Eastern Conference Finals just twice.
They know as well as anyone in the Capitals locker room – maybe even more – the dangers of allowing a team back into the series when it has one foot in the grave.
“I told the players, ‘Leave your best game out there and if it’s good enough you’re going to win [Game 7],” Caps first-year coach Barry Trotz said, “and if it’s not good enough you can walk out of here with your heads held high.
“We had 14 incredible games in our two series. They were very hard, very intense and we were that close in Game 5 here. We almost could have closed it out. Game 6 we got off to a little bit of a poor start [trailing 2-0 in the first period] but from there I thought we saw what the Washington Capitals are all about and I think you saw what the Washington Capitals are all about [in Game 7].
“There’s not much separating two teams going nose to nose. Just inches. A team winning was an inch here or an inch there. Everybody here probably predicted seven games.”
And that’s what they got. And for the sixth time in nine tries during the Ovechkin era, the Caps were on the wrong side of that post-game handshake line.
“It’s always painful,” Trotz said. “You’re going to look back at those moments.
“I mean, in Game 5, this is how the series went. I thought their goal was on one of their weaker chances. It’s a 3-on-4 and they really don’t have a play. They throw it towards the net and I think it goes off our defenseman’s heel, changes direction and finds its way in.
“That’s sort of the way it goes sometimes. In Game 6 we gave up a goal early but you saw the character. We made giant strides in our group in this series. I kept saying to the guys all year long that you learn different things from defeat and you learn different things from winning.
“In this situation, I think you can talk history all you want. This is a new group. This is a new team. Our organization is changing. We’re going to learn from our history and look it right in the eye.
“We went after this game. There was no nervousness on our part. We went after the New York Rangers in their own barn and almost pulled it off. I said to them all year that defeat is not your undertaker, it should be your teacher. We learned a lot. We’ve got some young kids that learned a lot and we’ve got great veterans, so you’re going to see the Washington Capitals back here again.”
And when they are, the Capitals may once again promise you the result will be different. But until you see, you will not believe.
It’s the cross Capitals fans have learned to bear.