The Capitals have been here before. So many times, in fact, that it's impossible not to compare the relative disappointments of their many early playoff exits.
At the time, 2015 seemed as excruciating as things could get: The Caps were 1:41 away from closing out the Rangers in five games, then proceeded to blow that game and lose the next two. Last year, expectations were higher than ever: Washington ran away with the Presidents' Trophy, only to draw Pittsburgh, the Eastern Conference's next-best team, in Round 2 and lose in six games.
On Wednesday night, the Capitals did it again, losing to the Penguins for a second straight year, this time in a Game 7 on their home ice. This year's disaster might be the most painful of them all -- not just because of the cumulative disappointment that's built up during the Alex Ovechkin era, but because in recent days it had finally looked like they'd figured things out. After trailing in the series three games to one, their convincing Game 6 victory in Pittsburgh cruelly teased their fans, tricking the optimistic among them into believing that maybe, just maybe, this year might be different, that they might finally advance to the conference finals, and that they'd do it by going through their nemeses from Pittsburgh in the process.
Instead, the Caps will once again watch the Eastern Conference Final on TV, just as they have done every year since Ovechkin came into the league. All the regular-season points and all the first-place finishes do little more now than remind fans of how consistently disappointing this team has been, how it has repeatedly failed to meet, let alone surpass, expectations.
Patric Hornqvist's third-period goal in Game 7 was a killer: A Caps turnover gave Hornqvist the puck at the top of the circle in the Washington zone. But a sneaky backhand release and just enough of a screen fooled Braden Holtby, and what had been a tense 1-0 game at the Verizon Center suddenly became a 2-0 nightmare.
Every year seems to bring a new executioner for the Caps: Two years ago, Derek Stepan ended their season with a Game 7 overtime winner. Last year, Nick Bonino finished them off in overtime of Game 6. This year's elimination didn't come in overtime, so Hornqvist, the very last pick of the same 2005 draft that saw the Penguins select Sidney Crosby first overall, will have to do.
The remarkable thing about the modern-day Caps isn't just that they haven't won a Stanley Cup; it's that they haven't even come close. They've won their division seven times since the 2004-05 lockout, and on three occasions they won the Presidents' Trophy with the league's best overall record. In that time, there have been plenty of forgettable teams that have advanced at least to the third round of the playoffs. But Washington, with so much talent, hasn't even gotten halfway to a title.
There's another reason this year's Capitals letdown may be the worst of them all. For a while now, the Caps have been the league's ultimate wait-till-next-year team. Which is to say, it's felt like they've had virtually infinite chances, and that eventually one of these years they'd break through. After last season's loss to Pittsburgh, for instance, Caps fans could at least cling to the silver-lining that they'd bring largely the same talented team back for 2016-17. But Washington now enters an offseason with some decisions to make: T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams, Karl Alzner and trade deadline pickup Kevin Shattenkirk -- players who combined for 173 points this season -- are all unrestricted free agents. Meanwhile, restricted free agents like Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, and Dmitry Orlov are due for raises.
Next year's Caps team will still have lots of talent, but they could have a very different look. Maybe that's necessary, and that this version of the Capitals would be doomed to lose to the Penguins in the playoffs every year without changes. Maybe whatever team the Caps assemble next season, no matter what they do in the regular season, will be the one that finally makes it out of the second round (or the third, or even the fourth) alive. In the meantime, the feeling today is all too familiar.