Sometimes the easiest explanation is something extraordinary, something out of human control. It could be a curse, an extraordinary lack of luck, or conspiratorial favoritism by the referees, or maybe all of the above. All have been brought up to explain the Washington Capitals' loss in Monday night's Game Seven, 5-0, to the New York Rangers, ending the Capitals' run at the Stanley Cup immediately following the firing of the starting gun.

For the Capitals, losing has become a bad habit. Many people develop bad habits because it provides a pleasurable experience. People don't smoke because it will kill them, they smoke in spite of that. There is nothing pleasurable, however, about the Capitals in the playoffs. It is just excruciating.

Since the team stumbled its way into the first overall pick in 2004, one they wisely used to select Alex Ovechkin, Washington has made the playoffs six years running. They've won their division in five of those seasons. They have been seeded third, second, first, first, seventh, and third. That's an average ranking of just better than third (out of eight), yet during that time they've made the second round just three times and have never gone any further.

A brief bullet-point summary of the Capitals' playoff history to get you up to speed:

  • Failure
  • Failure
  • Failure
  • Failure
  • Lost the Finals
  • Failure
  • Failure
  • Failure
  • Failure
  • Failure
  • Failure

That list may look melodramatic, but it's also accurate. When the Capitals drafted Ovechkin and made him the centerpiece of the team, a new era of success was promised. And, in a sense, it was delivered. Since Ovechkin's third season, his first in the playoffs, the Capitals are 264-143-51. That last category is overtime losses, which get you a point in the NHL's strange standings point system. With those losses, the Capitals have essentially won two out of every three games in the regular season. Prepare for rigorous analysis: that is very good. Ovechkin has won multiple MVP awards and has been nominated again this season. His teammates have been nominated for other best-of-the-league awards as well. The team is talented and young, and wins a lot of regular season games.

Then we get to the playoffs, where Washington is 27-31. You mathematicians will note that record is distinctly dissimilar to the team's regular season mark. It makes sense to lose more in the postseason, where the competition is stiffer and the quality of opponents is higher, but Washington drops from best-team-in-the-league category to done in the first round.

In 2010 the Capitals were the consensus best team in hockey. They won more games and garnered more standings points than any other team. They scored 46 more goals than the next best team and 85 more than the average NHL team. They faced a team in the first round that they had out-scored in the regular season by 101 goals, a team that had lost more games than it had won. The Capitals got out to a three games to one lead over that team. And lost the next three games, including two at home, to lose the series.

That's the most crushing example but hardly the only one. The Capitals blew a two-games-to-none lead to Pittsburgh in 2009. They lost Game Seven at home in overtime to Philadelphia the year before that. Then, when it looked like the team had broken through by winning a first round match-up with the Rangers in 2011, they got swept in round two by a Tampa Bay Lightning team that finished behind Washington in the standings.

And now this season. The Capitals started off weakly and were one of the worst teams in hockey before winning 15 of their last 19, and 11 of the final 13, to capture the division title and a date with the Rangers. How did the higher seed, the team with an MVP finalist for a team captain, lose? How did they lose after winning the first two games of the series, and after going up three games to two? How did they lose Game Seven at home (a significant advantage in the NHL) and how did they fail to score in that or the previous game?

Some answers are beyond my grasp, but at least some of this is, as alluded to in the opening sentence, small sample size luck. The vagaries of the sport are such that simple bad bounces can easily decide one or two games. A shot from the point can elude traffic, traveling through a million small spaces and bouncing off three guys before flying past the goalie, who if he ever saw it didn't have enough time to react anyway.

A few bad calls can have the same effect. Putting one team on the penalty kill generally means they won't score for two minutes, and it's likely the other will. In an 82 game season these things matter far less, but a single penalty called in the seventh game of a series can be an atomic bomb to a team's season. That has most certainly happened to the Capitals -- maybe not more than other teams but it seems to have hit harder. The Capitals have been blown out in the playoffs before, but usually not until the deciding game. Seven of their last nine playoff series have gone to seven games. The teams they've lost to have been to the Conference Finals four times and won the Stanley Cup once. They've taken all but one of those teams to a seventh game.

Against the Rangers, the Capitals did a better job of controlling the puck in most of the games. In a large sample that is a recipe for winning more than you lose. Puck possession is everything in hockey. But in a seven game series, bounces can dictate the score. One team can sell out to block shots as the Rangers did and the Canadiens before them by throwing their bodies in front of flying pucks. It's a suicide mission and wouldn't work over 82 games, but in a short series it can be effective (though not as effective overall as puck possession).

The other aspect is the hot goaltender, and that's a tough one to measure. To be sure Henrik Lundqvist qualifies, as did then-Canadiens goalie Jaroslav Halak in 2010. A goalie who is playing out of his mind can alter the outcome of a game and a series. Take Lundqvist, who stopped 94.7 percent of Washington's shots in the series (stopping just under 92 percent is average). In the beginning of Game Seven, the Capitals were carrying the play. They were controlling the puck, taking far more shots than the Rangers, and the home crowd was loving it. Then, through a series of passes, Capitals defenseman Mike Green found himself with the puck about ten feet from the Rangers net with no other skaters in sight. He carried the puck in, faked, and shot, but was unable to get the puck past Lundqvist. In faking, his momentum carried him past the goal, while the puck bounced up the ice. There it was taken by the Rangers, who now had an odd-man rush in the other direction. Long story only slightly shorter, that missed chance led directly to the Rangers' first goal, a wrist shot by checking line forward Aaron Asham. It was a nice shot by Asham, but had Lundqvuist not stopped Green, it was a chance he'd never have had.

At a certain point, however, all the explanations, all the excuses, all the rationalizations -- true, false, or a blend of the two -- fall by the wayside. Then there are only results, and that is where the Capitals under Ovechkin have nothing to offer but failure. It's unfortunate because by the very nature of the playoffs, as I've tried to point out, it's not all their fault. But that's how they'll be judged by the press, by the fans, and probably even by themselves.

Since the loss to the Rangers there have been calls to fire the General Manager, to trade Ovechkin and his teammates, to dramatically alter what is seen as a fundamentally flawed group of hockey players. That people would react that way makes sense. When searching for answers to explain the failure of the status quo, dramatic change seems the good and singular option. It isn't.

History is littered with good teams that didn't win, just as it's littered with good teams that took time to become great. The Capitals are built on a solid foundation with a strong core of talent, including one of the greatest players in the world. They have a smart head coach, and they have youth and skill. They have been competitive at the highest levels of professional hockey. There is nothing fundamentally flawed about them. To me it seems they've run into bad luck, bad calls, and tough opponents. They've hit the crossbar of fate. Let's see if they can corral and whack in the rebound.

This team deserves a shot again next season to see what they can do. Alex Ovechkin and his teammates may never advance past the second round of the NHL playoffs, but it won't be because of some imperceptible character flaw. The hockey playoffs are tough, random, and brutal. Only one team wins them each year. Maybe next year it will be the Capitals.

Maybe next year.