There'll be no tomorrow for the Washington Capitals.
The Pittsburgh Penguins knocked off the NHL's regular-season champs 4-3 in overtime in a thrilling Game 6 Tuesday night, bringing the Caps’ storybook season to an end.
Nick Bonino banged home a rebound at 6:32 of the extra period to seal the win and prevent the Capitals from staging one of the greatest comebacks in recent playoff history.
Phil Kessel scored twice and Carl Hagelin added one of his own to stake Pittsburgh to a 3-0 lead. But T.J. Oshie, with his fifth of the series, scored late in the second for Washington and Justin Williams and John Carlson scored in the third to even things out.
Pittsburgh moves on to face the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference finals. The Capitals move on to face a summer of anguish and regret.
Here are four thoughts on what may have been the best game of these playoffs:
The Pens needed one of their top players to make a difference in this one, and Kessel answered the call. He opened the scoring with his first goal of the series just 5:41 in, beating Braden Holtby to the short side. The Capitals keeper will take some heat for that one, but it was a devastating release through a screen, impossible to stop.
A Brooks Orpik double-minor for high sticking in the second period allowed Kessel to extend the lead. Just moments after ringing a shot off the post, he corralled a rebound, out-waited Holtby and slid it past the keeper's outstretched pad. It was just the second goal with the extra man for Pittsburgh all series. They got their third just 33 seconds later when Carl Hagelin deflected Olli Maatta’s blast from the point to give put the Pens ahead 3-0.
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin had their moments in this one, but couldn't match Kessel's heroics. Crosby put on a stickhandling clinic, and almost scored on a spectacular through-the-legs bid. Malkin offered up a couple of brilliant passes, including an elevator dish that Eric Fehr almost cashed in just before Bonino's winner. Neither got on the board though, continuing a series-long slump—all the more amazing then that the Pens were able to put the Caps to bed in six.
Three in a row
The hockey gods must have wanted Game 7. How else to explain the Penguins taking three consecutive delay of game penalties within a span of 2:02 midway through the third? Chris Kunitz, Bonino and Ian Cole all sent pucks over the glass, putting Washington on a pair of extended five-on-three opportunities that culminated with Carlson's game-tying tally at 13:01.
That bizarre sequence is sure to rile up the large faction of fans who hate the black-and-white nature of the call, but it's not likely to lead to any rule changes. This one is in the books as an offensive enhancement, in that it's intended to prevent players from relieving pressure by flipping the puck out to stop play. It worked exactly as intended.
No doubt the Caps will come out of this one talking about their resilience, about how they battled back from that three-goal deficit to force overtime, and that they did it with just five defensemen after Karl Alzner was injured in the first. But all they really accomplished here was turning a blowout into a nailbiter.
Washington wasn't supposed to lose this game, or this series. Or any series. This was its year to finally go all the way. The Capitals had the depth. They had the experience. They had the system. And still the season ended where it always seems to for the Caps, after the second round.
The Pens shouldn't have been the better team in the series, but they were, by almost any measure. They got better goaltending from 21-year-old rookie Matt Murray. Their defense—which played on without Maatta for three games and Kris Letang for one—stymied Washington's vaunted attack. And while Caps' blueliners did an excellent job slowing down Pittsburgh's top six, they didn't have the depth to handle the explosiveness of the Bonino-Kessel-Hagelin unit.
"I thought we did a real good job on Crosby and Malkin the whole series," Washington coach Barry Trotz said. "But a lot of the other people hurt us.”
Including themselves. The Caps did themselves no favors with their slow start in this one, although it was no surprise. Slow starts and this team went hand-in-hand all season. But a lack of energy to start a midseason game against Columbus is one thing. In an elimination game against a hated rival? That's inexcusable.
This is a team that relied on explosive third periods all along, and they almost survived thanks to another one Tuesday night. But at this time of year there's not a lot of success to be had by teams that play half a game.
You see this chance go by the wayside and you know Alex Ovechkin is going to hear about his inability to win the big one. That's more than a bit unfair. He had two assists in Game 6 to close out an excellent effort in this series. Ultimately, it was the team that came up short, not the captain. So let's skip the "greatest player never to win a Cup" narrative when assessing what went wrong in this series for the Caps.
A Penguins/Lightning conference final? Yeah, that should be fun. Two of the top-three offenses. Two of the top-four defenses. Power on power.
The Bolts swept the season series, outscoring Pittsburgh 15-9 in the process. Interesting that injured Tampa Bay defenseman Anton Stralman had a goal in each game and scored four in total over the series. There's no word yet on his availability for the next round, but the expectation is he'll play. Adding his defensive presence gives the Lightning a huge boost. So does goalie Ben Bishop, who gives his team a chance to win every night. He won two of those regular-season meetings, posting a .927 save percentage in the process. He's been even better in the playoffs, going 8-2 while holding the opposition to two goals or fewer in eight of those 10 games.
The Pens have to like their chances, though. They just snuffed out the regular-season champs in six games, and got it done with just one goal and four points combined from Crosby and Malkin. They've got another gear to hit. If they're going to get past the Bolts though, they'll need to find it quickly.
That series will get underway Friday in Pittsburgh.