The familiarity of an early playoff exit didn't make the Capitals' Game 7 loss in Madison Square Garden any easier Saturday night. First-timers like Braden Holtby got a taste of how history seems to repeat itself each Spring in a cruel fashion for Washington. But for those who had lived through past disappointment and weathered the season-long growing pains of a complete system overhaul, this loss was more devastating than any other.
For the 13th time this postseason the Capitals' night was decided by just one goal. For the sixth time, they came up on the losing end. But it was the first time in recent history that they held opponents to just over two goals per game.
"Last year was painful but we got outplayed," said second-year Capital Matt Hendricks. "I don't necessarily feel we got outplayed in this series. It was tooth and nail at all times, all seven games."
Unlike their last four consecutive berths, Washington failed to capture first place rights in the Southeast and entered as a lowly seven-seed. For the first time since the lockout, no one expected the Capitals to make much noise in the playoffs --something the team used as white board material while toppling the defending Stanley Cup champions and pushing the top-seeded Rangers to a full seven game series.
They looked different. They felt different. They believed this year would be different. So as they stood at their stalls Saturday night staring off beyond the microphones, cameras and faces asking questions they didn't believe they'd be answering, their disappointment was palpable.
Everyone agreed that this was the hardest loss of their Capitals career.
"Last year we were a good team," said Karl Alzner, who saw his first NHL playoff action in Game 7 of 2010's monumental first round collapse. "We had a good record, but there's always something different about losing in seven when you feel you had as good of a team as we did as opposed to last year, where we got swept."
"It's heartbreaking for myself," said Alzner's other defensive half John Carlson, also on finishing his third playoff stint with the Caps. "You have to win. That's everyone's dream. Here, that's what everyone wants to accomplish and that didn't happen."
The loss was also a harsh initiation for 22-year-old netminder Braden Holtby, who sat for several minutes in his stall looking out at a room full of reporters and talking quietly with Capitals PR director Sergey Kocharov before slowly standing to address the media.
While Saturday's Game 7 loss was disappointing for every player in the room. But for Holtby, another missed opportunity still ached more than the recent blow.
"We were very confident in ourselves this playoffs and that's how the series goes. It's six seconds in Game 5. That was the difference and it happens," said Holtby before offering a silver lining. "We had a very strong team, and especially a lot building forward."