WASHINGTON -- Sidney Crosby(notes) and Alexander Ovechkin(notes) had exceeded expectations in their first postseason showdown: The NHL's two biggest stars engaging in six contests of unparalleled gamesmanship, captivating even the most causal observers as the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals battled to a Game 7 on Wednesday night in D.C.
The final tally showed Ovechkin winning the individual battle, 14 points (8 goals, 6 assists) to 13 points (8 goals, 5 assists) for Crosby.
But none of that mattered as the two titans met in the postgame handshake. Crosby's team had sent Ovechkin's team to one of the most crushing defeats in the history of the franchise on its home ice: a 6-2 thrashing that sent Pittsburgh to the Eastern Conference finals for the second year in a row and sent the Capitals home after a sometimes tumultuous, sometimes electrifying postseason.
"Great series," was Crosby's message to Ovechkin.
And Ovechkin? "I wished him good luck," said the Capitals star. "Tell him, 'Win the Stanley Cup.' You always wish luck when you lose to a great team."
Here's the final handshake between the teams, and Ovechkin's thoughts on the Game 7 defeat in the Capitals' locker room.
Coming up, some reactions and observations on a Game 7 that, let's face it, wasn't what the hockey world was expecting.Crosby and Ovechkin both have the ability to turn a game with one offensive play. Three minutes into the contest, Ovechkin had his chance on a breakaway.
Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury(notes), shaky in a Game 6 loss, actually did what Capitals rookie sensation Simeon Varlamov(notes) did in Game 7 against the New York Rangers: Made a few absolutely essential saves early in the first period before the Penguins found their footing. His glove snag of an Ovechkin shot will go down as the primary "what if" moment for the Capitals in this blowout.
"If Alex had put that in on the breakaway, it might have been a different story," said Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau.
Crosby called it a key moment in the game. "It sends your team a message when your goalie makes a big stop like that," he said. "It allows you to calm down."
The Penguins survived an early flurry from the Capitals, getting a power play at 11:29 of the first period. With defenseman Sergei Gonchar(notes) back from injury and manning the point, Crosby knocked a puck from his skate to his stick and then into the net for a 1-0 lead.
Varlamov had given up goals to Crosby on the doorstep all series. No reason to panic. And then, eight seconds later, it was panic time. A puck chipped into the zone, not handled by defenseman Brian Pothier(notes), and then converted by fourth liner Craig Adams(notes) past the Capitals.
Adams' goal was inexcusable. Eight seconds after Crosby's tally, Adams sent a shot past Varlamov that he had to have. Never mind if he could have or should have had it -- he had to have it. Eight seconds. The game went from "OK boys, we'll get it back" to "Here we go again, Capitals fans" in eight seconds.
When the first period ended, the sound that filled the arena was peculiar. It wasn't a jeer. It wasn't a cheer. It certainly wasn't enthusiasm. It was a stunned disbelief at what had transpired, a tentative hope for a second period rally. If one can make that sound.
Then the roof caved in. Bill Guerin(notes) scored 28 seconds into the second period, followed by a cotton-soft goal from Kris Letang(notes) just under two minutes later. It had taken six games and a period, but the Penguins had finally cracked the rookie goaltender that had rescued the Capitals' season.
"It's hard to come back from a 4-0 lead against a defending conference champion. They're a good team, they know what they're doing," said Pothier. "Varly has been unbelievable all postseason for us. He gave us a chance to stay in the game, and we didn't take it."
Boudreau questioned leaving Varlamov in after the third goal. "We've had bad periods before, but had always come back. After the third goal, I was thinking about pulling him because he was looking really dejected," he said. "Maybe I should have called a timeout at that point. After the fourth goal, the wind really completely came out of his sails emotionally."
By then, the Penguins had taken over the game and taken out the crowd. In just 22 minutes and 12 seconds, the Capitals had seen this Game 7 of a classic series turn into one of the most anticlimactic moments in recent NHL history; a mess of turnovers (19 to the Penguins' 4), bad decisions and pedestrian play from individuals who had excelled in the pressure of Game 6.
"It certainly wasn't the way that I would have envisioned it," said Boudreau.
The Capitals coach let slip some details of his team's challenges during the series: an injury to defenseman Mike Green(notes) and an injury to Ovechkin (which the player has indicated was a bum groin) that Boudreau said would have grounded the star in the regular season.
The postmortem on this game will be intense for Capitals fans this summer and beyond. Why they couldn't match the Penguins' confidence. Why they couldn't match their intensity. Why the final game of the series was, by far, their worst of the playoffs, perhaps the entire season.
But its final two minutes spoke volumes about the mindset of these fans: a huge standing ovation at the end of a 6-2 loss.
It's a bitter lesson for a team still learning how to be a champion, but young enough to continue building towards one.
"I don't know if there is a lesson," said Boudreau. "One thing is for sure: You got to be ready every night. I mean, it's the playoffs and you can't afford [to] put yourself in a position like this [because] eventually you are not going to win games."