NEW YORK – This time, there is no one to blame.
Oh, there are plenty of people who will point fingers at the Capitals for blowing a 3-1 series lead.
And there are plenty of people who will continue to say that Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom can’t win the big one.
But the truth is this: The New York Rangers will be facing the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals because they were one shot better than the Capitals.
That’s what separated the Rangers from the Capitals in Game 7 Wednesday night at MadisonSquareGarden.
“I don’t know what to say about this,” Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said after scoring the only goal in yet another crushing Game 7 defeat, his sixth with the Capitals. “It’s tough. We lost the series. We played our game but one goal decided it. They’re a great team but I think we deserved better.”
Ovechkin is right. The Caps were every bit as good as the Rangers in this series. They had eight chances to win the game in overtime, highlighted by a monster shift by Joel Ward, Jason Chimera and Evgeny Kuznetsov.
But Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist denied the every time.
“Shoulda, woulda coulda,” said Ward, who was arguably the Caps’ most effective forward in the series. “We obviously were pushing and wanted to score and wanted to win. We just didnlt get that break and they got one at the end.”
On the game-ending play, Caps center Eric Fehr, who was playing in his first game since suffering an upper body injury on April 19, lost a faceoff to Derek Stepan.
“I tried to tie up his stick and kick it back,” Fehr said. “I’m not sure where the puck went but it ended up back up top [to defenseman Dan Girardi]. It’s definitely a tough way to finish.”
Girardi’s shot from the point appeared to be blocked in front of the net, kicking to Stepan in the left circle. Stepan drilled the puck over Caps goaltender Braden Holtby, who did the splits trying to stop Girardi’s point shot.
“It hit something and it went right to [Stepan],” Holtby said. “I don’t know what I could do differently.”
Holtby stopped 37 of 39 shots. Lundqvist was one save better with 35 saves on 36 shots.
“We have a very special group and it’s unfortunate,” said Holtby, who played in 86 games this season and is now 2-3 in Game 7s. “I’m proud of everyone on our team. It’s tough to swallow but there’s no regrets in this room. I’m proud of everyone. It’s unfortunate.”
Asked if the Caps regret their inability to close out the Rangers after building a 3-1 series lead – they were 1:41 away from finishing off the Rangers in Game 5 -- Holtby refrained.
“Obviously, we had an opportunity to close it out, but all the games were close,” he said. “It could have been 3-1 the other way at that point. It was a great series and one that easily could have gone our way. But it didn’t.”
Nicklas Backstrom said the Capitals were as strong a team as he has been on during his eight years in Washington, which makes Wedneaday night’s defeat that much more difficult.
“Everyone played the right way,” Backstrom said. “Everyone blocked shots, everyone worked hard, and that’s what you need to do in the playoffs. I think if you compare to last year, it’s a lot better. It’s obviously disappointing because you want to go further and it stops right there. It’s no fun.”
Ward, scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, said he thought the Caps had the makings of a special team that could win it all this season, a sentiment shared by his coaches and teammates.
“It was definitely disappointing,” he said. “I thought we were going to make it a pretty good run. It wasn’t what I envisioned. We played hard right down to the end. Games were close and I thought we left it out there. We worked hard all year to be in this position and we felt good about our group. It’s just disappointing.”