Ovechkin, evolving Capitals learn from defeat

Derek Stepan scored the OT winner to lift the Rangers over the Washington Capitals in a 2-1 win and move on to the Eastern Conference finals after New York trailed the series 3-1.

NEW YORK — They’ve waited. Oh my, they’ve waited.

So what was another 10-plus minutes tacked onto an incredibly tense Game 7 given where the Washington Capitals have come from?

STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS: | Broadcast Schedule
Rogers NHL GameCentre LIVE | Stanley Cup Playoffs Fantasy Hockey 
New Sportsnet app: iTunes | Google Play

This seemed to be their moment, their time. Not only was there Alex Ovechkin’s guarantee of a victory over the New York Rangers, but there was also a strong push from Washington when Wednesday’s overtime period began.

A queasy quiet fell over Madison Square Garden as the Capitals cycled the puck and threw everything they had at Henrik Lundqvist. And then there were two icings, a lost faceoff and a point shot through traffic that bounced off Braden Holtby and right onto the stick of Derek Stepan.

Season over. Another failed bid to get past the second round.

“I don’t know what to say about it,” said Ovechkin. “It’s tough. It’s a tough situation.”

This is an organization that has been on a decade-long odyssey to find its way out of the wilderness. A first-ever trip to the Eastern Conference final with Ovechkin and Co. would have been tangible evidence that it’s finally walking down the right path.

The Capitals had a chance to accomplish that in Game 5 before allowing the tying goal with 101 seconds to play and losing in overtime. A mad push to come from behind in Game 6 fell just short, but there was always Game 7.

This was the ninth time in Ovechkin’s 10-year NHL career he’s been part of a series that went the distance and the game’s greatest goal-scorer was intent on making the difference. He guaranteed a victory and then opened the scoring with a shot that beat The King to the glove side.

In a series as tight as this one, with two defensively-minded teams and two outstanding goalies, that was a big moment. The belief on the bench was stronger than ever.

There was a noticeable change in this Capitals group from its previous incarnations and much of the credit belongs to Barry Trotz. He’s the fifth Washington coach in the Ovechkin Era — following Glen Hanlon (2005-07), Bruce Boudreau (07-11), Dale Hunter (11-12) and Adam Oates (12-14) — and was brought in last summer to get the team to the next level.

Trotz introduced defensive structure. He gave Ovechkin the freedom to use his talents and showed him how to make an impact without the puck. He put this group of players in position to knock the Rangers out of the playoffs.

“There’s a real difference from last year,” said centre Nicklas Backstrom. “I think we play the right way. I would say it’s two times in the playoffs we’ve been playing the right way — it was this (year) and that time we had Dale Hunter.

“It’s something we’ve got to build on.”

The veteran coach also introduced a mindset that was perfect for a do-or-die situation. He repeatedly told his players to play without fear and reminded them that: “Defeat is not your undertaker, it should be your teacher.”

In psychology, it’s akin to a concept known as stress inoculation, which involves making a conscious choice to attack stressful situations head on and to accept the stress as something helpful.

There was no evidence the failures of the past weighed heavily on this group. Even after the Capitals took a string of second-period penalties and saw Kevin Hayes tie the game on Wednesday, they didn’t shrink.

The third period saw very few scoring chances from either side, but in overtime the Capitals went for it. Jay Beagle was denied on a great opportunity before John Carlson rang a shot off Lundqvist’s mask. Jason Chimera had an open shot from the left circle.

Eventually, the bounce went to the Rangers and Stepan’s winner froze the clock at 11:24. It was a hell of a game.

“This is a new group, this is a new team, our organization’s changing,” said Trotz. “But we’re learning from our history and we’re looking it right in the eye. We went after this game. There was no nervousness on our part.

“We went after the New York Rangers in their own barn and almost pulled it off.”

Ovechkin’s guarantee fell by the wayside, but it wasn’t for lack of effort. He registered a game-high six shots and whistled a couple more just high or wide.

Holtby matched Lundqvist save-for-save throughout the series and stopped 37 more shots in Game 7, while Backstrom logged huge minutes and continued his dominance in the faceoff circle.

Trotz described those individual performances in a pressure-packed situation as evidence the team is evolving. He also mentioned that they still have “unfinished business” — a reminder that the pursuit of the Stanley Cup doesn’t end with the season.

“If we keep growing like we grew this year we’re going to do special things in the future,” said Holtby. “This group is too good, too close and works too hard to be stopped in the future if we keep pushing.”

It is almost impossible to properly describe the amount of agony you sense when you walk into a losing dressing room during the Stanley Cup playoffs. After being outscored 13-12 by the Rangers in a series that stretched over 440 minutes, what we saw from the Caps on Wednesday night was even worse than usual.

Glassed-over eyes. Hushed voices. Total disbelief.

“I don’t know what the mind’s going to say in a couple days,” said veteran winger Joel Ward. “We definitely accomplished a lot. … I thought we were going to make it a pretty good run here. The outcome just wasn’t what I envisioned.”

He wasn’t the only one.

Almost an hour after the game ended, Ovechkin emerged from the visitor’s dressing room alone. Hands in his pockets, shoulders slumped, he bowed his head as he walked down the spiralling tunnel out of Madison Square Garden and into another painfully long summer.

Download Sportsnet magazine now: iOS | Android | Windows

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.