There were murmured conversations in the Capitals’ locker room and equipment managers came and went without their usual racket. There were no slammed doors or angry voices. Just a sound void filled by disappointment.
A year ago, the Capitals turned visiting room at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas into an impromptu club. The party lasted for days and captivated the city. There’s a reason that celebration meant so much. Winning a Stanley Cup is so, so hard.
And when you think you have a legitimate chance to go “back-to-back” – as forward T.J. Oshie said with such glee last summer – and the playoff bracket opens up for you and another Cup seems within reach, it is a gut punch when you’re shown the door in the first round. The Capitals tried their best to make this a new year, a new journey. But it was always colored by what they did last June.
“You’re always trying to re-set after every season,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “You knew that was the case, but you were trying to re-set and trying to play every game like normal. We would have liked a better outcome, but it happens.”
Brock McGinn deflected home a pass by former Capitals forward Justin Williams at 11:05 of the second overtime to win Game 7 of this bizarre, back-and-forth series. The Carolina Hurricanes advanced to the second round, where they will play former Washington coach Barry Trotz, who led them to that Cup before leaving after a contract dispute, and his new team, the New York Islanders.
The Capitals will instead head to their offseason homes and wonder how this series got away from them, how this game got away from them, after leads of 2-0 and 3-1. Instead of parades and days with the Cup and they are left with questions.
General manager Brian MacLellan waited in the hallway outside the coaches’ office, pacing back and forth absent-mindedly. His cheeks puffed and he blew out a deep sigh. Defenseman Brooks Orpik finished his media interviews and hobbled out of the locker room, a giant bag of ice strapped to his right knee. The 38-year-old is an unrestricted free agent and doesn’t know if this was his final game.
If last year’s Cup took the edge off the loss you couldn’t tell. There were no sobs as in 2010 when Washington, the Presidents’ Trophy winner that year, was shocked in seven games by the Montreal Canadiens. Alex Ovechkin patiently answered questions this time, but he did not sit in full uniform for 45 minutes after the game, alone in his anguish, the way he did after a second-round loss to the New York Rangers in 2012.
“You saw across the league, Winnipeg, Vegas, Tampa, Pittsburgh. There are teams that everyone expects to at least get past the first round,” Orpik said. “And it’s a probably a good reminder and indication on how tough it is to not only win one round but do what we did last year. I don’t think anyone in here took that for granted. It just proves how tough it is.”
Oshie, an integral part of last year’s championship team, was out for the series with a broken collarbone. Instead of helping his teammates on the ice, he was wearing a sling and eating popcorn in the press box eight stories above the ice and watching from a suite. He put on a brave, forced smile, but not playing was clearly killing him.
Carolina had key injuries, too, but Oshie epitomized so much of what was good about the 2017-18 Capitals. It’s why the championship banner hangs at one end of the arena. But there was nothing he could do tonight, but watch.
And Oshie’s teammates weren’t quite good enough after a strong start had the Capital One Arena crowd roaring. The Hurricanes, though, were like hockey zombies. They couldn’t be killed. A short-handed goal by Sebastian Aho gave them life. A ripper by Staal, long a Caps killer dating to his days in Pittsburgh, tied the game 3-3 early in the third period and set the stage for the overtime dagger.
“We didn’t envision this happening so I don’t know,” goalie Braden Holtby said as he searched for answers. “It’s tough right now.”
Afterward, as he answered questions in the locker room, a pair of well-dressed twenty-somethings wandered into the room and sat down at an empty locker to watch Holtby address a large scrum of reporters. The two bros weren’t exactly supposed to be there. They wandered in through an open door and looked sadder than some of the players. When Holtby was finished, one of the men yelled “Shake it off, champ!” and they gave a golf clap. Security quickly escorted them out after team staffers confronted the men. It was a fitting coda to a weird series.
A year ago, before the Capitals turned the visiting room in Vegas into a beer-soaked frat party, Ovechkin had hatched a plan: He made sure all of his teammates were in the room, chided the ones who were lingering on the ice and when all was ready he skated the Cup to the bench. There he lifted it up one last time for the cameras and reporters, yelled “Thank you, Vegas!” and disappeared down the tunnel to his waiting teammates. The party lasted for days.
On Wednesday, Ovechkin, dressed in his game-day suit, walked down the long hallway at Capital One Arena with his wife, Nastya, at his side and his mother, Tatyana, a few paces behind. His head was bowed, their footsteps the only sound as they made their way toward the exit. Earlier, he, too, had tried to make sense of the loss.
“This group of guys has been in different positions, hard times, good times, and we never said, ‘It was his mistake or it was somebody’s mistake.’ It was our mistake,” Ovechkin said after the game in the locker room. “We didn’t execute. We didn’t sometimes play the right way. But it’s over. It’s hard – especially after last year. But nothing you can do right now, right?”
Nastya playfully patted her husband on the butt a few times to try to lift his spirits and he smiled, briefly. The couple have a son, now. So much has changed since last June. Ovechkin turned toward the arena and security staff watching the scene and said “Thank you, guys!” while letting his hand linger in the air as he walked through the exit and into a longer offseason than expected.