NEW YORK – By the time the reporters poured into the Washington Capitals' dressing room late Monday night, it was almost empty. Most of the players were already gone. The trainers were packing up their gear and removing their nameplates.
But Joel Ward was sitting down, trying to be a stand-up guy. He had taken a double-minor for high sticking that led to two power-play goals for the New York Rangers – one with 6.6 seconds left in regulation, the other 1:35 into overtime.
Instead of earning a 2-1 victory, the Caps suffered a 3-2 loss. Instead of taking a 3-2 series lead, they fell into a 3-2 hole.
He couldn't duck it. He couldn't put it away. He couldn't take his name off it.
He didn't try.
Three times, he said he let down his teammates. Three times, he said there was nothing he could do as he sat in the penalty box. Three times, he said he had been hoping for a chance to redeem himself. He called it "a little mentally disturbing."
He could have just called it "hockey."
"It's a game of inches," Ward said. "It happens pretty quick. We were a few seconds from winning, and it turned into overtime into a loss, just like that."
This sport can crown or humble you fast, especially in the playoffs. One swing of a stick can make you a hero or a goat. The puck bounces around like a lottery ball, and so much depends on where it lands. How many goals are scored by Joe Player, assisted by Luck and Chance?
Remember why the Capitals are in the second round in the first place. They upset the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins by winning the tightest series in NHL history – the first in which all seven games were decided by one goal – and they won it in overtime of Game 7.
On a goal by Joel Ward.
That night in TD Garden, the puck bounced Ward's way. He backhanded a rebound into the net.
Remember why the Capitals had a 2-1 lead to blow Monday night. The Rangers' Mike Rupp went off for hooking early in the third period, because he had no other option to prevent a scoring chance.
On a rush by Joel Ward.
This time at Madison Square Garden, the Capitals got a break. Defenseman John Carlson broke the stick of Rangers captain Ryan Callahan, then fired another shot past Callahan – whizzing it inches from his face, as he bent down and turned to the side to block it. The puck went off the goalie's glove and into the net.
Until the last minute of the third period, the story was how the Capitals were beating the Rangers at their own game. They were patient, collapsing, blocking shots – winning close. "We liked the position we were in," said Capitals winger Troy Brouwer.
But this is the downside of that philosophy. Play for the coin flip, and eventually the coin won't flip your way. Odds are it will catch up to you at some point.
Off a faceoff in the final minute, Ward tried to get to his point. He had to get around Rangers winger Carl Hagelin. He swing his stick and smacked Hagelin hard and high, knocking him down and drawing blood. Four-minute penalty. Blatant.
The Rangers pulled their goalie, giving them a 6-on-4 advantage, and got a bounce. Defenseman Michael Del Zotto fired from the point. The puck hit a Capital and pinballed to Callahan down low. Though the Rangers hadn't managed a single shot on three power plays earlier in the game, Callahan whacked two into the goalie's pad. Then Brad Richards slipped the puck under Carlson's arm and off the inside of the left goal post. Bedlam.
"We just tied a game where we were six seconds away from being down in the series," Richards said. "We had a lot of energy, and the crowd was in it again."
Finally, the Rangers got two more bounces. Rangers center John Mitchell took only his fourth faceoff of the night – and won his fourth faceoff of the night. He drew it back to defenseman Marc Staal, who fired from the point between two shot-blockers. It went off the stick of Brooks Laich, off the body of Matt Hendricks and past goaltender Braden Holtby. Boom.
"I could have done a better job seeing around the traffic, but that's what happens when you play a style where you block a lot of shots," Holtby said. "Sometimes those go in. It just happened to be in overtime today."
This was a devastating loss. At least it should be. Though the Capitals were outshot, 38-18, they blocked 25 shots. They paid the price. They were going to be one victory away from their first Eastern Conference final since 1998 – the promised land they never reached with their high-flying, high-scoring, low-defense style under former coach Bruce Boudreau. And as captain Alex Ovechkin said: "Nobody thought that was going to happen."
"I think we were all content with the way it was going," said Caps winger Mike Knuble. "Guys were doing the job, doing what was asked of them. They got the 6-on-4, and it was just a question of too many bodies against too little bodies. Their big guns came through. That's pretty satisfying for them."
But it wasn't too satisfying. At least it shouldn't be.
"It's a great feeing," said Rangers center Brian Boyle, "for the time being."
This is hockey, playoff hockey. The Rangers rallied from a 3-2 deficit in the first round against the Ottawa Senators. The Capitals took a 3-2 lead in the first round, lost Game 6 to the Bruins and went to overtime of Game 7. The difference was one goal, one bounce, one swing of the stick.
Ward, their hero then, their goat now, sat alone after answering the reporters' questions. Teammate Dennis Wideman tried to console him.
Wideman gave him a few quiet, private words, then a pat on the behind.
"You try and talk to the guy, but I don't think there's going to be very much that's going to make him feel better right now," Brouwer said. "He's probably going to be our best player in Game 6."