Henrik Lundqvist stood on his head, but didn’t breathe until 13 seconds into the third period.
“When we scored the fourth one, I felt like, ‘OK, we got this,’” smirked the New York Rangers goalie. “As long as it was three (goals), you never know with this team. They have so much skill and they could turn it around quickly.”
Ryan Callahan’s goal early in the third period was followed by another marker — this one by Mats Zuccarello — as the Rangers claimed a 5-0 victory over the Washington Capitals in the decisive Game 7 at Verizon Center on Monday night.
The Rangers face the Boston Bruins the second round, a series that begins on Thursday. For the sixth time of the Alex Ovechkin era, the Caps slinked into the postseason without making it to the conference finals.
Lundqvist was one star on either team that had a prolonged impact on the series. Fortunately the Rangers had role players like Aaron Asham — a forward who had more goals (two) than Ovechkin (one) — step up. Asham scored the first goal of Game 7 with seven minutes left in first period.
That ended up being plenty for Lundqvist, who followed his 1-0 shutout win in Game 6 with a 35-save gem in Game 7. In doing so, Lundqvist became the latest excuse why the Capitals fell short in the postseason despite having what is allegedly a deeper roster.
The other explanation for the Caps’ early exits have included coaching that was either too lax (Bruce Boudreau) or too rigid (Dale Hunter). First-year Caps coach Adam Oates gets a pass, at least for now, for a team that managed to blow 2-0 and 3-2 series leads.
The team’s GM George McPhee could get a share of the blame for putting together a team that again had regular-season success — even if another Southeast Division title is about as treasured (minus the guaranteed top-3 seed) as a participation trophy — but sputtered in the postseason.
That wasn’t what the Capitals players were looking to direct the blame.
“Lesson? Maybe learn how to play in the playoffs, I would say,” Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom told reporters. “It’s the same thing as previous years, I would say. We came back regular season then (the) playoffs came and we’re not good enough. I can just talk for myself and my effort. Not good enough. No excuses. It’s just a bad effort.”
It was a sentiment that echoed around another sullen Caps locker room.
“I guess we aren’t as close as we think,” defenseman Karl Alzner told FOXSports.com. “We felt good. You just start to realize how hard it is to win it. You have respect for the teams that go far. We made it second round last year and we thought we were going to win the Cup. We just have to find a way to get over the hump.”
That task for the Capitals may not get any easier. The team’s stars are aging. The salary cap is shrinking, although that’s something all of the league’s 30 clubs will have to contend with this offseason.
“Quite honestly, it’s tough to explain,” Oates said.
Oates gave the easy reason: Lundqvist. The actual answer is much more complex, but let the goaltender who became the first Ranger since Mike Richter on the 1994 Cup-winning quad to net back-to-back shutouts get his due.
“They have so much talent,” Lundqvist said. “After the first two games, I felt this could be a challenge. The more we played, the more we played as a team. The more confident we got. As a goalie, when you feel that confidence from the group, it’s a lot easier to play.”