NEW YORK – Although the Washington Capitals were officially eliminated from the playoffs by the New York Rangers in a Game 7 squeaker, the upstart club out of the No. 7 seed knows it let this series get away in what it thought was the final seconds of Game 5.
Just 7.6 seconds away from taking a 3-2 series lead over the top-seeded Rangers in the Eastern Conference semifinals, the seventh-seeded Capitals allowed the tying goal to Brad Richards on the first half of a 4-minute power play.
Then they were vanquished early in overtime when Marc Staal cashed in on the second half of the advantage, as New York took that edge and moved within one win of advancing.
The Capitals didn't give up, however, and pulled out a 2-1 win at home in Game 6 on the strength of Alex Ovechkin's power-play goal 1:28 in. But as was the case throughout the entire series, the teams alternated wins throughout, and the club that scored first never lost.
Washington came up short in Game 7 on Saturday night, another 2-1 decision in a series in which six of the seven games were decided by one goal. Brad Richards gave the Rangers a 1-0 lead just 1:28 in, and Michael Del Zotto doubled New York's advantage in the third period.
"You go back to Game 5, the last 30 seconds. That was just a huge moment and a huge swing of things," Capitals forward Mike Knuble said. "We were able to go home and battle back. Tonight they got the first shot of the game, and it goes in the net. We got the first shot and it went in in Game 6. It's a couple of moments like that you put the finger on as to how the series played out."
Roman Hamrlik tried to get the Capitals right back in it when he answered Del Zotto's goal 38 seconds later, but the Capitals were outshot 11-4 in the third and couldn't get another puck past Henrik Lundqvist.
That was the difference between this Game 7 and the one the Capitals pulled out over the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins in the first round.
"You think you could have won. You think you're right there," Knuble said. "At certain times you get beat in a playoff series and you look in the mirror and you can't fool yourself. You didn't have a chance to win that series. I think our players should be very proud of our effort. We were able to get over the hump against Boston. We just couldn't do it. It was a great run for us."
The disappointment and frustration couldn't be hidden by the Capitals. As they came off the ice following the final buzzer, some players were seen and heard slamming their sticks against the wall as they headed down the hallway to their dressing room.
Washington, which has never won the Stanley Cup, was trying to reach the conference finals for the third time. The Capitals knocked out the Rangers in two of the three previous seasons, so they felt good about this matchup despite the seeding mismatch of 1 vs. 7.
"We tried to do our best," Ovechkin said. "It's terrible for me right now, but all I can say is we do have the best team — part of the best team I've been on. The group of guys, the atmosphere, it's unbelievable to play."
Coming into Game 7, these teams were tied or within one goal of each other for 90 percent of the time, and the finale provided much of the same.
Lundqvist finished with 22 saves for the Rangers, who improved to 5-0 in Game 7s at Madison Square Garden. Now they will face the Atlantic Division-rival Devils in a rematch of the 1994 East finals, won dramatically by New York on Stephane Matteau's double-overtime goal in Game 7. That propelled the Rangers toward their first Cup title in 54 years.
That series will open Monday in New York.
For the Caps, only one of their 14 playoff games overall were decided by more than one goal.
"It's disappointing," said Braden Holtby, who made 29 saves. "We really did believe in here that we had the team to do it all. We gave ourselves a great chance. It's a tough loss. What we can take out of it is that New York is a very good team. We didn't leave anything on the table."
New York played a very disciplined game, taking only one penalty for delay of game against Ruslan Fedotenko in the third period. The Rangers' power play did nothing on its two chances, but keeping Washington's man-advantage unit off the ice helped secure this win.
The Capitals tried to pull Holtby for an extra skater with 1:22 left in the game, but he had to scramble back to cover the vacated net before he ever got to the bench.
He finally got off the ice, and the Capitals pressured in the Rangers' end. The puck was stuck in the corner when the final seconds ran out, and Lundqvist thrust both arms in the air as streamers poured down from the ceiling.
The Capitals trudged to the handshake line after they fell to 0-6 in playoff games this year in which they allowed the first goal. Washington was 7-1 when it scored first.
"It's really tough," forward Matt Hendricks said. "We played some really good hockey the last couple of months. For it to end this way, it's hard. We couldn't find the back of the net. Lundqvist played well and we just couldn't find the rebounds.
"We've been fighting from behind all season. We felt we were going. It was just one of those things. We couldn't find the net, and it was over."