WASHINGTON — Thirty minutes before midnight Wednesday, silence overtook the Washington Capitals. It was kind of spooky to experience how quickly 10½ months of celebration, validation and newfound trust went hush after the season-ending defeat. There were no overly emotional displays, just quiet. A sellout crowd turned mute. The silence dragged the players through the handshake line, off the ice, into the dressing room, on to a new day, back to real life.

The champagne bottles are empty now. Washington will remain the Stanley Cup champions only for about six more weeks. Their title defense is over, and in hindsight, it sounds so silly to have called them defending champions all season because this seven-game first round of attrition against the young Carolina Hurricanes reminded us that titles are to be chased, not guarded. The Capitals weren’t the same team this season; they didn’t even spend the money to bring back their head coach, Barry Trotz.

They weren’t as hungry. Their defense slipped. Their power play was a disaster. Carolina made them look slow. The Capitals had advantages in experience and talent, and at times, they imposed their will on the Hurricanes early in games. But over the course of seven tough games that concluded with a double-overtime test of wills in Game 7, the Hurricanes played better hockey for longer stretches. They outplayed the champs, and Carolina Coach Rod Brind’Amour out-coached Todd Reirden.

So Trotz, now with the New York Islanders, has advanced to the second round. He won’t see his old team there, however. And over the next few days, and likely longer, it will be impossible to avoid playing the what-if game and wonder how much the Capitals’ decision not to pay top dollar to keep a good thing together really cost the team.

In the end, more than 30 minutes of so-called sudden death felt more like prolonged agony. The Capitals’ season didn’t just end out of nowhere. The Hurricanes dominated possession for most of the overtime periods. By the end, the Capitals had no legs. Other than one hard Alex Ovechkin shot off Petr Mrazek’s mask, it felt like a Carolina goal was inevitable. The better team — the more unified and organized team in this series — won.

Rather than devastation, the Capitals seemed to alternate between disappointment and confusion. They thought they had overhauled their playoff identity by winning a championship. But in losing four of the last five games in this series and blowing leads of 2-0 and 3-1 in Game 7, some of their bad playoff habits resurfaced. Or maybe that’s just this sport, which specializes in postseason chaos. For most teams, there is no mastery of these playoffs. There is no graduation to comfort. Anxiety and potential for catastrophe linger just the same as silence in defeat.

“It’s kind of situation where the season is over, and you understand that,” Ovechkin said. “We fight through 82 games and in Game 7, they score one goal, and it’s a kind of situation where you’re disappointed, you’re frustrated, especially after last year.”

In terms of intensity and all-around performance, Ovechkin was brilliant for most of the series. He was physical. He tormented Dougie Hamilton. He scored goals and set up others with some brilliant passing. In Game 7, his assist to Tom Wilson in the first period was one of the most beautiful combinations of effort and skill that you’ll ever see, in any sport. Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom carried a Washington offense that played well as a unit only in spurts. Ultimately, however, the team lost. In the first round. A year after winning the Cup.

It’s a bitter ending, and for as well as Ovechkin played, there will be some who will feel like he could have done more. That is just the burden of being a superstar.

“Yeah, it was hard,” Ovechkin said of the loss. “We knew after Game 5 we have to make a push, and we tried to do our best. Obviously, this group of guys has been in different positions, hard times, good times, and we never said, ‘It was his mistake or it was somebody’s mistake.’ It was our mistake. We didn’t execute. We didn’t sometimes play the right way. But it’s over.

“It’s hard, especially after last year, but nothing you can do right now, right?”

The championship lessens the feeling of panic about an early exit, but it doesn’t erase the disappointment that the Capitals failed to capitalize on an opportunity. They led the series 2-0. They used their home-ice advantage well enough to play even or from ahead for all four games at Capital One Arena — until Brock McGinn scored the series-clinching goal. In a wild first round, the Tampa Bay Lightning were swept after a record-setting regular season. Pittsburgh, the Capitals’ nemesis and back-to-back champion in 2016 and 2017, was swept. Calgary, the best team in the Western Conference, lost. So did Las Vegas, last year’s other Stanley Cup finalist.

As crazy as the playoffs can be, there was a real opportunity for the Capitals to go far despite T.J. Oshie’s injury and their emerging issues. But they fell victim to the chaos, too.

Is it just one of those years across the league? Maybe. Still, the Capitals have to own it. They gave the Hurricanes hope and confidence instead of suffocating the young team. Carolina is too resilient, clever and aggressive to allow to breathe.

“They kept coming, the whole team,” Washington goaltender Braden Holtby said. “They played a consistent style of hard work, and in the end, that’s what beat us. You’ve got to give credit where credit is due. On paper, you wouldn’t expect them to be the team that they are. That’s a credit to them and their coaching. They play a team game and that’s why the series was so close. We just came on the wrong end of it.”

Now, you start to worry about the veteran Capitals getting old. Ovechkin will be 34 in September. Oshie is 32 and under a hefty contract. Backstrom will be 32 in November. Brooks Orpik, 38, is playing year to year. The team isn’t ancient, but it is aging. It is also built around power and physicality in a league that is growing more obsessed with speed every season. General Manager Brian MacLellan faces the tricky challenge of sprinkling in more versatility without ruining the team’s identity and starting the process of planning for later even though he has a team built to win now.

The Capitals will recover and be highly competitive for several more seasons, at least, with the core of this team. But it’s difficult to stay at a championship level. This loss stings differently. It doesn’t come with “Will we ever get there?” desperation anymore. But tasting the champagne 10½ months ago elevated both the Capitals’ reputation and their own appreciation for how precious the glory is. They want that feeling again, and while last season’s triumph can never be taken away, this disappointment is that much more of a buzz kill.

“This is a tough league to win in, especially when you’re coming off winning the year before,” Orpik said. “Everyone is hungry to knock you off.”

No more defending. Back to the chase. Back to that long, arduous and silent journey for fleeting joy.

(1) comment

gb4baseball

Excellent column, Mr. Brewer. Top-notch writing!

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