New York -- For an entire month, the Capitals skated the razor's edge in the Stanley Cup playoffs. There was no breathing room, no margin for error. Every game was close, every mistake magnified, every late goal a reason to erupt in pure joy.
There was no reason to think Saturday's decisive Game 7 against the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference semifinals would be any different. After all, 12 of Washington's 13 playoffs so far had been decided by a single goal. But in the roaring, roiling cauldron of noise known as Madison Square Garden, they were on the wrong end of a 2-1 loss that brought an abrupt conclusion to the 2011-12 season.
Rangers forward Brad Richards scored just 92 seconds into the contest, and teammate Michael Del Zotto added the eventual game-winning tally in the third period as New York held on for a thrilling victory.
"I don't think we exceeded anybody's expectations. We certainly had more aspirations than what the season turned out. There's no solace in any of that," forward Brooks Laich said. "I thought we did some really good things. The way it ended last year [a four-game sweep by Tampa Bay] and the way it ended this year, I thought we took more positive steps - I thought we were a lot closer this year than last year. I think we play the right way. We played a very good hockey team. They were just able to get one more goal."
Washington had scored early in Game 6 when Ovechkin tallied on the power play 88 seconds into it. The Rangers needed just 1:32 for Richards to smash a one-timer past rookie goalie Braden Holtby from the left faceoff circle. It's possible Nicklas Backstrom provided an inadvertent screen on the play. The pass came from behind the net from Carl Hagelin.
Henrik Lundqvist, meanwhile, shined in the second period in the opposing goal. At the last instant he poked a puck away from Alexander Semin, who had deked his way past multiple defenders and in alone on goal. The Russian was upended and soared through the air. Just three minutes later, Mike Knuble, alone to Lundqvist's right with the puck at his feet, was robbed by pad save with 12:55 left in the period. Later in the second, Washington kept the puck in the offensive zone for a little more than two minutes as the exhausted Rangers tried desperately to fend them off, but nothing came of that possession. Lundqvist finished with 22 saves on 23 shots.
"I think [Lundqvist] made a save at the right time. He was good all series," Backstrom said of his fellow Swede. "He's a hard-working goalie with a good attitude. Then they got the second goal there in the third and that was kind of tough for us. I don't know. It's easy to be smart afterwards.
The finishing blow came off the stick of Del Zotto, who beat Holtby (29 saves, 31 shots) from the top of the slot on a broken play midway through the third period as the teams entered the zone and the puck bounced off Laich's right leg. Caps defenseman Roman Hamrlik scored just 38 seconds later to give his team hope again, but an ugly failed power play hurt Washington's chances. In the final frantic seconds, Lundqvist held strong as the Rangers advanced to play the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference finals.
The Caps, meanwhile, limped off to their dressing room wondering again how they fell short. They last reached the conference finals in 1998.
"Should've [won]? You think you could've won. You think you were right there," Knuble said. "And I think you really go home and look in the mirror. 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, Ultimately. I think our players should be very proud of our effort. We were able to get over the hump against Boston [in the first round], Just couldn't do it tonight."