This was supposed to be the Washington Capitals’ year. Again.

After another dominant regular season where they ran away with the Presidents’ Trophy, the Caps entered the playoffs as a runaway favorite to finally capture their elusive Stanley Cup.

As usual, though, the road to hockey’s greatest prize would go through Pittsburgh. And, faced with their two biggest nemeses – the Pittsburgh Penguins, who had beaten them in 8 of 9 playoff series, and the second round, which they haven’t gotten past since 1998 – the Capitals fell just short. Again.

This year’s loss was particularly cruel, as Washington battled back from a 3-1 series deficit to force Game 7 on home ice. Game 6 was particularly deflating for the Penguins, who barely cracked the offensive zone in a loss that was more lopsided than the 5-2 final score. Going home to Verizon Center, the series felt like Washington’s to lose.

As it turned out, it was a backup goaltender’s series to win.

Marc-Andre Fleury, the 32-year-old veteran who lost his starting job to rookie Matt Murray last year, then got it back for these playoffs when Murray went down to injury, did nothing less than steal Game 7 from the Capitals. No. 29 stopped all 29 shots he faced to earn the 2-0 shutout.

“He’s been great the whole series,” said forward Patric Hornqvist. “He’s been unbelievable; our best player the whole playoffs.”

Fleury likely stole a couple of games in this series. The Capitals came hard, with a relentless forecheck and physicality that the Penguins were hard-pressed to match. Pittsburgh struggled to break out of their own zone without top defenseman Kris Letang, lost in February to season-ending neck surgery. Washington outshot, outchanced and outplayed Pittsburgh through much of the series.

Yet the defending champions, as they so often do, found a way to win four of the seven games and advance to the Eastern Conference Final, which they’ll open against the Ottawa Senators this weekend.

“They showed a lot of resiliency,” said Capitals head coach Barry Trotz. “They’re a good hockey team; you can see why they’ve got the pedigree of a Stanley Cup champion. And, in the end, they were really good tonight.”

“I don’t know that I can say enough about this group of players,” said Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan. “We’ve been through so much since I’ve been here, and they just always find a way to respond the right way to any of the challenges and the adversities that this league throws at us. And they did it again tonight.

“I think these guys are at their best when the stakes are high. That might’ve been the best game we’ve played in the playoffs to this point. I thought that was the closest thing to the Penguins’ identity that we’ve seen in the playoffs so far.”

In Game 7, the Penguins withstood the Capitals’ early push and finally took it back to them in a closely matched, hard-fought contest.

It took until 8:49 of the second period for either team to get on the board. When someone finally broke through, it was a player who one day might challenge the Capitals’ Justin Williams for his title as Mr. Game 7 – Bryan Rust, who took a patient, pretty feed from rookie Jake Guentzel to add to what’s becoming an impressive list of big-game moments.

“It gave us life,” Rust said. “It gave us momentum, especially after losing two games, just to be able to grab that lead and get to playing our game a little better than we have been. It gave our bench a lot of confidence, and we just kept getting better from there.”

The 1-0 score held up until nearly a period later, when Hornqvist, who co-led the Penguins with four shots on the night, backhanded one toward the net and over the glove of goaltender Braden Holtby, who appeared to be caught off-guard, to make it 2-0.

While the Penguins were finding ways to get those crucial goals, the Capitals’ most skilled players couldn’t break through.

“In games like these, we’ve got to find ways to put the puck in the net,” said forward T.J. Oshie. “Big moments, your big players have got to play big. And, regrettably, I don’t think we did that tonight.”

Pittsburgh didn’t get another goal, but they didn’t make the fatal mistake of Game 5, where they tried to protect a third-period lead that quickly evaporated. Instead, they kept pressing and came through with their best period of the postseason to close out the game and the series.

“I really liked our first two periods,” Trotz said. “I thought once they got their second goal, they locked it down. They got a lot of energy on their bench, and it sort of got us on our heels. We didn’t have the structure and those things that gave us a chance to get back in.”

“The message was to not sit back and defend the lead,” Sullivan said. “To make sure that we play on our toes, that we go out and we try to work to get the next goal; we’ve just got to do it the right way. We’ve got to have an aggressive mindset, keep our shifts short, but play on our toes and not our heels. And I thought our guys did a terrific job, to a man.”

Fleury led the way, making saves like this one on Washington captain Alex Ovechkin off the shaft of his stick.

“That was nice. I said a little thank-you,” Fleury laughed. “We have some experience in that room, you know? We didn’t panic, everybody was confident about this game and we got it done.”

“Fleury was probably their best guy all series,” said Brooks Orpik, current Capitals and former Penguins defenseman. “Disappointed that we’re on this end of it but, if one guy was going to have a good series for them, I’m glad it was him.”

The Penguins got contributions from their entire lineup, with even skill players like Guentzel throwing their bodies in the line of fire to block 19 shots (Brian Dumoulin, Nick Bonino and Ron Hainsey led with three blocks each). The win was a full team effort from a group that’s been through a tough couple of seasons and have seemed to emerge stronger from every obstacle.

“We’ve been through so much the last two years here,” Hornqvist said. “Injuries up and down. Almost not making the playoffs, and then we go and win the Cup. And now we have our backs against the wall again and we come up with our best game so far this season. It’s a lot of character and we trust in ourselves in here. We have a great group of guys, and it’s fun to play.”

“Everyone contributed, and I can’t tell you how proud I am of this group of players,” Sullivan said. “The Washington Capitals are a very good hockey team. I congratulate them on a great season. They’re well-coached; they’re a deep team. They challenged us all night long, the whole series for the last two weeks.

“I can’t tell you how proud I am of this group of players in continuing to have that stick-to-it-iveness in finding ways to have success.”

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