Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby makes a save during the second period of Game 6 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Eastern Conference semifinals, against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Tuesday, May 10, 2016 in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Nearly any negative adjective would describe the current mood of Washington Capitals fans. A team that seemed destined for a long run to the Stanley Cup was again outmatched, outplayed and outclassed by their arch-nemesis, the Pittsburgh Penguins. In another second round matchup, the Penguins prevailed, this time in the most excruciating of fashions, a 4-3 overtime loss in Game Six on May 11.
This series had all of the makings of a classic, and the fans got just that. Three overtime games, great goaltending, extremely physical play, bonehead penalties and lucky bounces—but everything seemed to go Pittsburgh’s way, as it normally does. It’s never fair to say an opponent is just “lucky,” in sports: you create your own luck by being the more physical, forceful team. For five of the six games, the Pens were that.
It’s hard to win games when you’re taking dumb penalties, as Brooks Orpik did in Game Two; Orpik was inevitably suspended for three games for his illegal hit. Orpik returned in Game Six, only to draw an awful double-minor penalty for high sticking which put the Capitals penalty killing unit in a most precarious position. Orpik’s penalty resulted in two goals for the Pens, who took a 3-0 lead and what looked like a guaranteed win.
Somehow, the Capitals rallied as never before, scoring three unanswered goals to send the game into overtime. But in overtime, Pittsburgh’s pure speed and overall talent overwhelmed the Caps, and Nick Bonino scored the series-clinching goal right on the doorstep of Capitals goalie Braden Holtby.
It’s hard right now to quantify what went wrong this time around, but it isn’t difficult to take the pulse of Capitals Nation. The fans’ apathy is warranted—they’ve been through this time and time again. It’s disheartening to say the least, and the fans have every right to be, not just at this particular season’s conclusion but with all the missed opportunities over the last few seasons.
Last season, Washington lost to a better New York Rangers team in seven games. This season was supposed to be different. The Caps had the best record in the league, and set a team record for wins. But in their way were the Pens, who were the best team in hockey from March until the playoffs. To beat the Pens, the Caps were going to have to play their best hockey of the season and they just did not.
Washington’s leading scorer of the regular season, Evgeny Kutznetsov, had only two points in the entire playoffs, turning into a virtual no-show on the grandest stage. The team suffered mental errors by their defensemen, such as Mike Weber’s blind pass into his own zone that cost the Capitals a game, or two defensemen leaving Hotlby alone to try to stop Phil Kessel at point-blank range. Those type of plays, on top of Pittsburgh’s physicality, were just too much for the disjointed Caps.
How could a team that played so well this season look so average when the pressure was on? Demons are real. Ghosts are real. And the Capitals played as if the pressure was just too much. Years of disappointment will do that to the best of us. Until next season, there’s little more to say, except: Rock the Red.