They had the best record in the regular season. They had the goalie who tied the mark for most wins in a regular season going against a no-name rookie. They had home-ice advantage and won Game 1. They had four power plays in the final 10 minutes of the third period of the deciding game—and more than 3 ½ minutes on the advantage with the contest tied, a stunned opponent and a ticket to a seventh game seemingly in hand.
And still, the Washington Capitals couldn't find a way to win more than one playoff round. In just the latest heartbreaking chapter in what is turning out to be one of the NHL's most tortured team histories, the Caps let slip a chance to play a seventh game on home ice by losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-3 in overtime in Game 6 on Tuesday at Consol Energy Center.
Nick Bonino scored the winner to give Pittsburgh its eighth playoff-series victory in nine matchups with Washington, and the Penguins will face the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final. Bonino finished a play that epitomized how dominant he and his linemates, Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin, were all night. They combined for all four Pittsburgh goals.
"Great play by the D to get it up; Haggy and Phil been goin' all series, and it's never pretty—the winners like that," Bonino told NBC's Pierre McGuire. "I was just able to whack it in."
For the Presidents' Trophy winners, the season ended like it has every year since they joined the NHL in 1974: no cup. If the Caps couldn't win this year, when will it ever happen?
This was such a crazy game, it can rightfully be said Washington showed a champion's heart and also flat-out blew it in the span of just a few minutes. Nursing a 3-2 lead with less than 10 minutes to play in regulation, the Penguins took not one, not two, but three delay-of-game penalties in two minutes, two seconds, starting at the 10:32 mark, when Chris Kunitz shot a puck into the stands from the defensive zone. Bonino did the same thing at 11:38 and Ian Cole at 12:34.
At 13:01, John Carlson provided Washington with the tying goal, but it left the winning money on the table when it was there to be had. There was 1:33 of power-play time remaining after Carlson's goal, with Cole still in the box. But then the Caps started losing faceoffs, fumbling passes and playing on the perimeter again, much like they had on power plays before Carlson's goal.
Washington head coach Barry Trotz made a nice adjustment before Carlson's goal, moving Alex Ovechkin from his normal left side in the power-play formation over to the right, which seemed to confuse the Pens' penalty-killing unit.
But after Carlson's goal, Ovechkin went right back to the left side. The power play got predictable again, and Cole came out of the box. Still, the Capitals got one more power-play opportunity when Kris Letang was called for interference on T.J. Oshie with 2:46 to go. What happened? More lost faceoffs, more Ovechkin on the left side and more instances in which Nicklas Backstrom was too slow with the puck on the right side and tried to make perfect plays that weren't there.
When Letang's penalty expired, you had the feeling that so, too, did Washington's chances to force a seventh game.
Without taking away from a Pittsburgh team that has been dynamite through the second half of the regular season and into the playoffs, you have to say the Caps kinda-sorta blew it. They dominated play possession-wise for most of Game 3 but couldn't solve rookie goalie Matt Murray. They had great chances to win Game 4, but again they couldn't finish.
They had the Penguins cornered in Game 6 but let them get away. All that work in the regular season, all that talk about learning how to win—all of it gone in another "Same Old Caps" storyline.
But why? Why can't this team win the big ones?
This year, we can pin the goat horns largely on veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik. He will forever be remembered poorly by Washington fans for what he did, starting with that elbow to the head of Pittsburgh's Olli Maatta in Game 2, which drew a three-game suspension.
That contest turned in the Penguins' favor after Orpik's penalty, and Trotz had to juggle his defense in that and later games. He had to use a guy, Mike Weber, who had played but eight minutes in the playoffs, and it was Weber's giveaway in overtime that lost Game 4.
Orpik came back for Game 6, but what did he do? He took a careless high-sticking double-minor at 6:25 of the second period, and Pittsburgh scored twice with him in the box, on goals by Kessel and Hagelin.
It wasn't just Orpik, though. Backstrom, one of Washington's most important offensive players, failed to score a goal in the series. While he had four assists, he was mostly ineffective on the power play, taking too long to make decisions with the puck too many times. Evgeny Kuznetsov, who had 77 regular-season points, tallied just two in 12 postseason games.
That's why the Capitals lost. Again.
For all of the praise Trotz has gotten—and he's earned it—the fact remains: He has never taken a team to a conference final. This was supposed to be the one.
That it didn't happen has to be maddening to owner Ted Leonsis, who has done everything in his power to bring a championship to Washington. The Caps don't need to be blown up and rebuilt; they have so many good pieces in place, starting with goalie Braden Holtby. But this team wasn't good enough. Some changes need to be made.
Leonsis and Co. will soon have to start pondering what those should be. They'll have a lot more time than they wanted. And even if changes are made, even if holes are filled and liabilities eliminated, does it really matter? After this team's last decade of playoff futility, should we expect anything more than further disappointment and frustration and more shattered Stanley Cup dreams?
Because that's all it's ever been for the Washington Capitals—for 42 years and counting.
Adrian Dater covers the NHL for Bleacher Report.