The Washington Capitals’ history of playoff disappointments began even before they ever reached the post-season.
The proof is hanging in the closet in Bruce Peters’ home in Waldorf, Maryland, about 30 miles away from where the Presidents’ Trophy winners lost Game 7 to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday night with a spot in the Eastern Conference finals at stake.
The T-shirt, purchased at the long-since demolished Capital Centre, remains in impeccable condition. On it is a cartoon image of an unnamed Washington player with a devil sitting over his shoulder. Across the bottom it reads: “Playoffs 1981 — Paid Hell To Get Here.”
One problem. The Capitals didn’t actually make the playoffs that spring, finishing last in the Patrick Division instead.
So much for truth in advertising.
Not that it mattered to Peters. An 8-year-old at the time, he was already hooked on the game and the guys in the red, white and blue sweaters. And he’s stayed that way. Through the Easter Epic and the Stanley Caps. Through Yvon Labre and Rod Langway. Peter Bondra and Olaf Kolzig. Jaromir Jagr (whoops) and Alex Ovechkin. Through Esa Tikkanen’s botched open net in Game 2 of the 1998 Stanley Cup Final. Through blown 3-1 leads and Game 7s that almost always ended with a handshake line as the other guys moved on. Through 43 years and four wins — four — beyond the second round.
Peters clings to the positive moments — Dale Hunter’s Game 7 breakaway against Ron Hextall in 1988, or Joel Ward’s winner against Boston in 2012.
“At least the Caps have given you a glimmer of hope, something to root for,” he said.
But for the fourth time in four tries, his Capitals failed in a Game 7 against longtime nemesis Pittsburgh on Wednesday.
“The Penguins always seemed to get the bounce,” Peters said.
Those many failures “kind of blur together,” Peters says. And now they include another miserable chapter.
THE EASTER EPIC: Technically, Game 7 of the 1987 Patrick Division semifinals began on April 18. It didn’t end until around 2 a.m. on April 19, when Pat LaFontaine’s turnaround snapshot from the point threaded through a sea of bodies and beat Bob Mason 8:47 into the fourth overtime. In the stands, a 13-year-old Peters sat in stunned (and exhausted) disbelief.
“It wasn’t like a hard shot, you would think a routine stop, just trickled and found its way,” he said. “You play seven periods of hockey, wear and tear just gets you.”
THE NEDVED GAME: While Washington’s 1996 first-round series against Pittsburgh lasted just six games, in many ways it’s symbolic of the club’s inability to close. The Capitals won the first two games at the Igloo and had a chance to take a 3-1 lead in Game 4. The Penguins lost Mario Lemieux early in the game after getting in a fight. Washington’s Joe Juneau botched a penalty shot. Pittsburgh’s Petr Nedved won with a shot in the fourth overtime that could have been called “Easter Epic 2.0.” The win tied the series. Pittsburgh advanced in six games.
“That one’s up there,” Peters said. “Way up there.”
SID VS. OVI PART I: The NHL finally got a matchup four years in the making when Ovechkin and Penguins star Sidney Crosby met in the second round of the 2009 playoffs. The two exchanged hat tricks in Game 2 and Washington did something very un-Capital-like by winning an elimination game on the road to force a Game 7. The breakthrough moment never came. Marc-Andre Fleury stoned Ovechkin early, and the Penguins ripped off four goals in the first 23 minutes and never looked back.
“They just kind of fell apart,” Peters said.
JAROSLAV WHO?: The Capitals responded a year after falling to the Penguins by posting the NHL’s best record for the first time ever. They had home ice in the playoffs. It lasted all of seven games. Washington went up 3-1, then saw its best season ever come undone at the hand of unheralded Montreal goaltender Jaroslav Halak. The team that scored a season-high 318 goals managed three over the final three games and lost 2-1 in Game 7 at home.
GONE IN A NEW YORK MINUTE: Less than two minutes from closing out the New York Rangers in Game 5 in 2015, the Capitals allowed New York’s Chris Kreider to tie it late in regulation. The Rangers won quickly in overtime, and Henrik Lundqvist lifted them to two more wins. Another hot goalie. Another abrupt ending.
PENS AGAIN: The Capitals began Wednesday night’s game flying under a thunderous chorus of “Let’s go, Caps!” A few hours later, they skated off amid mostly silence, although a smattering of boos pushed back against some cheering fans in black and gold. Fleury made 29 saves, Bryan Rust and Patric Hornqvist scored and Pittsburgh beat Washington 2-0.
It’s the second straight season the Capitals won the Presidents’ Trophy for the NHL’s best regular-season record but exited in the second round of the playoffs. With T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams, Daniel Winnik, Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk set to become unrestricted free agents, this loss may have marked the end of a once-promising era in Washington hockey.
Just don’t expect Peters to stop rocking the red.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Eventually it’s going to turn.”
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Will Graves, The Associated Press