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WASHINGTON – At the end, there was mostly silence. A smattering of boos, reacting to cheering by the opponent's supporters. Some faint applause. This was the end of a series, the end of a Game 7 loss — yes, yet another Game 7 loss by the Washington Capitals — and, seemingly, the end of an era.
An arena so raucous just hours earlier — all the red-jersey-clad fans shouting along with that color's mention during the national anthem, chanting "Let's go, Caps!" during play — was in a hush as the final seconds ticked away and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury finished off the Pittsburgh Penguins' 2-0 victory over Washington on Wednesday night to close out their Eastern Conference semifinal.
Fleury made 29 saves for his ninth career playoff shutout. The goals came from Bryan Rust in the second period, and Patric Hornqvist in the third.
It was the second year in a row that Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and the rest of the Capitals earned the Presidents' Trophy for the NHL's best regular-season record but exited in the second round of the playoffs.
Indeed, Ovechkin might have compiled more than his share of goal-scoring titles and MVP awards, but his team has never made it past this stage. Never. Washington is now 0-7 in second-round series during his tenure; its last visit to the conference finals came all the way back in 1998. Coach Barry Trotz also never has been to a conference final, with Washington or with his previous team, Nashville.
And, no matter how much they insist the past doesn't matter, the Capitals keep falling short of expectations in the most heartbreaking way: During Alex the Great's career, they have now played in 10 Game 7s, going 3-7.
This offseason could mark a big shift for the franchise, too.
Top line right wing T.J. Oshie — who tied Ovechkin for the team lead in goals this season — and another couple of forwards, Justin Williams and Daniel Winnik, along with defensemen Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk are unrestricted free agents. Restricted free agents who are due a significant uptick in salary: center Evgeny Kuznetsov, wing Andre Burakovsky and defenseman Dmitry Orlov.
So while the Capitals will once again head home, and head into months of uncertainty, the Penguins will face the Ottawa Senators in the Eastern Conference finals. Pittsburgh will host Games 1 and 2, before the series shifts to Canada.
The Capitals certainly had their chances in Game 7. Boy, did they.
Fleury, though, was up to the task — and Washington missed the mark often enough to make things easier on Pittsburgh's goalie than maybe they should have been.
There was Ovechkin, on a pass from new linemate Tom Wilson, taking a shot from the slot late in the second period, but seeing the puck fly off the shaft of Fleury's stick. The goalie smiled at his fortune after that one.
And with about a minute left in that period, there was Backstrom with a 1-on-1 opportunity, but this shot plunked harmlessly against the side of Fleury's net.
During the game's first few minutes, it seemed as if Washington was on a power play, maintaining control of the puck in its offensive zone. Then, after Braden Holtby stopped Evgeni Malkin on a 2-on-1, the Capitals actually did have a man advantage, because the Russian center was sent off for tripping. But that chance amounted to zilch: Washington's vaunted power play didn't produce a single shot on goal.
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