Thursday May 14th, 2015

In the end, there wasn’t much to separate the Washington Capitals from the New York Rangers.

A series of seven games, each decided by a single goal (only the second time that’s happened in NHL history; the Capitals were involved in the first, a 2012 win over Boston) eventually came down to a lost face-off in Washington’s defensive zone, a seeing-eye shot by Dan Girardi from the point and a big rebound that was gift wrapped for a wide-open Derek Stepan 11:24 into OT.

The Rangers skated off in jubilation toward an Eastern Conference Finals date with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Capitals were left to cope with the crushing reality of blowing a 3-1 series lead. Again.

Rangers end Capitals' season with Game 7 OT win, advance to East Final

Maybe Washington deserved a better result. The Caps almost had this thing won back in Game 5, after all, coughing up a lead with 101 seconds remaining before Ryan McDonagh stole it out from under them in overtime.

And they were certainly the better team for most of extra time in Game 7, pushing the pace, generating the chances. The desperation was there. The reward wasn’t. Hockey can be cruel that way.

But as bad as this one hurts it still somehow feels like a step forward. Like if this wasn’t meant to be Washington's year, at least it could have been.

Or maybe not.

Only one team gets to skate the Stanley Cup every year and it isn’t always the best one. Sometimes it’s the one that has everything fall into place at the right time.

But looking at this Washington team it’s not hard to imagine that happening for the Caps. Soon.

Braden Holtby finally gives Capitals real deal in net

One thing‘s certain: Despite his 6-7 record, Braden Holtby emerged from these playoffs as a bona fide star. The 25-year-old gave his team a chance to win every night, posting personal best totals in goals-against (1.71) and save percentage (.944).

If you happened to watch Game 7 on CBC Wednesday night, you saw a highlight reel that illustrated how much Holtby’s game has matured since he was placed under the watchful eye of the Goalie Whisperer, Mitch Korn. Holtby always had the temperament and the potential to be something special. Now that he’s refined his technique, he is special.

Getting the pending RFA signed to a new, long-term deal will be the summer’s top priority for GM Brian McLellan. He doesn’t have to worry about the possibility of an offer sheet—all indications are that Holtby wants to be part of this team moving forward. But that doesn't mean Holtby won’t leverage the high demand for a young, high-end keeper in towns like Edmonton, Dallas, Buffalo and San Jose to get exactly the deal he wants in Washington. If that means something like the Tuukka Rask contract—$56 million over eight years—the Caps should pony up with a smile. He’s every bit as critical to this team’s Stanley Cup dreams as Alex Ovechkin, whose failed Game 7 promise does nothing to detract from a season in which he proved (finally) to be worthy of the C on his sweater.

• Revisiting the NHL's greatest Game 7s

The defense, revamped last summer with the additions of free agents Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, looked capable of powering a deeper run. The Caps ranked seventh in goals-against during the regular season (2.43) but found another gear in the playoffs, limiting the opposition to just two goals per game.

Washington’s blue line corps will return largely intact next season, although there’s a decision to be made on pending UFA Mike Green. There’ll be a line of fans willing to drive him to the airport after he took a pair of frustrating penalties in Game 7, but his future with the team won’t be determined on the basis of one rough game. Green simply isn’t as important to the Caps since being replaced on the first power play unit by John Carlson. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a deal to be made, but given the league-wide demand for puck-moving defenders and Washington’s limited cap space, it seems likely that he’ll receive a more generous offer from another club. His departure would make room for Dmitry Orlov to become a full-time NHLer next season. Nate Schmidt and Connor Carrick will also be knocking on the door and should see some action.

Tim Gleason and John Erskine, the team’s other two UFA defensemen, are done. Another veteran, preferably one who is a little quicker on his feet and more confident with the puck, could be brought in via trade or free agency to provide depth.

Pair Tactic: Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf have Ducks primed for Cup

There could be some movement up front as well after Washington’s offense was essentially shut down for two rounds (2.00 goals per game, 13th out of 16 playoff teams, and a 10.% success rate on the power play, ranking 14th).

To take the next step, the Caps could use two proven top-six wingers, preferably with a willingness to shoot the puck and the ability to win their share of battles in the offensive zone. Players like Patrick Sharp (trade) or Justin Williams (free agency) might fit the bill. It would be blue sky to get both, but at least one of those vets, or someone like them, is imperative to get this team to the next level.

RFA forward Evgeny Kuznetsov proved that he could handle the heavy checking of the playoffs and should be ready to handle the No. 2 center role full-time next season. He has the skill and creativity to become a special player. Marcus Johansson, on the other hand, shrunk under the bright lights on the big stage. Another RFA, he could be moved over the summer for someone who can handle deeper water.

McLellan has to address the futures of four UFA forwards. Joel Ward has his limitations, but he’s a player who can make a very specific contribution to a contender. The Caps should make every effort to re-sign him. Jay Beagle is useful, but not irreplaceable. The price has to be right to bring him back or the team could simply turn to Michael Latta to fill his depth-center role. Curtis Glencross and Eric Fehr will play elsewhere next season.

There’s work to be done, but the window is wide open for Washington.

• Stanley Cup playoffs coverage hub

The numbers game

• Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist’s six career Game 7 wins are tied with Martin Brodeur and Patrick Roy for the most in NHL history. Three of Lundqvist’s victories have been 35-save efforts on May 13 (2015, 2014, and 2013.)

• The Rangers improved to 14-3 in their last 17 games when facing elimination (dating to Game 6 of the 2012 CQF at OTT). They have won eight of their last nine such games over the past two years. Per Elias, that is one shy of the NHL record for most victories when facing elimination over consecutive playoff seasons, set by the Islanders from 1975-76 (9).

• Of the 22 second round games, 15 were decided by one goal, including the seven between the Rangers and Capitals; the winning team overcame a deficit seven times, and five of the games went into overtime. Of the 69 postseason contests thus far,  44 have been tied or within one goal entering the final five minutes of regulation play, including all three Game 7s.

Hot links

• Tickets to last night's Game 7 at MSG were the most expensive ever on the secondary market. At least buyers got 11 extra minutes of hockey.

• A new study details the economic impact of hockey on Canada. Spoiler alert: it is significant.

• Jack Todd writes about Carey Price, P.K. Subban and the closing window of opportunity for the Canadiens.

• Has the NHL really become a small man's league?

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