This wasn't a loss; this was a collapse

WASHINGTON -- "History will be made."

The NHL's catchphrase is a reminder every night of the playoffs.

And this was history all right, a collapse of historic proportions.

Defying all logic, the NHL's best regular-season team by a country mile folded in spectacular fashion, losing Game 7 of its conference quarterfinals series 2-1 and becoming the first No. 1 seed to blow a 3-1 series lead in the playoffs to an 8-seed.

Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said he would have bet it all, everything he had, that what happened Wednesday night against the Montreal Canadiens would not happen.

But it did.

"There wasn't much I could tell them. I told them I feel exactly like they did," Boudreau said. "I thought we had a good chance to win the Stanley Cup this year. I would have bet my house that they wouldn't have beaten us three games in a row. We all feel as low as we can possibly feel, and we'll meet in a day and we'll discuss the shoulda beens, the coulda beens at that time."

The Capitals will spend a long time washing the stain of this loss out of their psyches.
In less than a week, they managed to forge a brand-new reputation for themselves -- a wildly skilled team that somehow still lacks the gut-check gene.

Never mind Games 5 and 6, when the Capitals beat Jaroslav Halak just twice on 90 shots. Game 7 was a defining moment for this franchise.

Boudreau talked about it Wednesday morning before the game. He said these are the nights when heroes are made and celebrated, and when goats are likewise named and pilloried long after the Zamboni leaves the ice.

Boudreau no doubt thought there would be such a hero somewhere in his lineup. And it would be cruel to suggest the morguelike Capitals' dressing room had the distinct odor of barnyard when the dozens of reporters chronicling their fall from grace surged in. But you get the point.

"If someone came to your work and stepped on your desk or punched you in the head, that's how I feel," Capitals winger Jason Chimera said. "You come for a long playoff run, and it doesn't happen. It's tough. Right now, it's weird."

This was a moment that could have defined a team, a moment that said the team had arrived, a moment when it pushed back when it needed to push back the most. We saw it with the Detroit Red Wings the night before, slowly but surely bringing a less talented Phoenix Coyotes squad to its knees in a seventh game.

On this night, though, it was the talented Caps who buckled to a less talented, but ultimately more committed, Canadiens team.

Captain Alex Ovechkin, swallowed up by cameras and reporters, seemed dazed.

"No, it's a fact that we [lost], and I don't know what I have to say right now. It's a terrible feeling right now," he said. "You know, it's hard for me, but for everybody. We know we can win, but we don't win it. It's pretty hard."

Ovechkin, in his first playoffs as team captain, seemed curiously out of sync the past couple of games, trying to force shots from the outside, rarely driving to the net. He was credited with 10 of the Caps' 42 shots on the night, but there was never the sense he was about to break through, as there had been earlier in the series and in the regular season.

Ovechkin's best chance Wednesday night came late in the third as he shifted neatly from the slot to the right side and whipped a shot on net that seemed to surprise Halak. The puck snuck through him but popped out wide of the net. It was a moment that typified the Caps' woes.

Nicklas Backstrom, so good in the regular season, had zero points in the last three games of the series.

Alexander Semin was a disaster from the moment the series began, finishing without a goal. In Game 7, he had eight more shots on goal and did hit the crossbar -- Which other Capital would it have been? -- but seemed aimless, willing to shoot from everywhere and anywhere.

Norris Trophy contender Mike Green had another miserable night to close out another miserable playoff series. He finished with three assists and took an offensive-zone cross-checking penalty that set up the Canadiens' first goal, a power-play blast from Marc-Andre Bergeron with just 30 seconds left in the first period.

"He deserved it," Boudreau said of the penalty. "It wasn't a very smart play."

Later, on the same sequence after Ovechkin's hard shot squeezed through Halak but out of danger, Green couldn't beat Maxim Lapierre to a loose puck in the Caps' zone and Dominic Moore swept in and snapped home what would become the winning goal with 3:36 left in regulation.

Brooks Laich made it 2-1 with 2:16 left off a scramble in front, one of the few "dirty" goals the Capitals were able to come up with in this series. Then, with 1:44 left, Habs blueliner Ryan O'Byrne took a high-sticking penalty and suddenly it appeared the door to redemption had opened a crack. Yet the league's most potent regular-season power play fizzled yet again.

"We had a power play this year that, I think, after October was going close to 30 percent for the rest of the year, and we were 1-for-33 on the power play," Boudreau said. "I would have bet, again, everything, that couldn't be done, and it was."

As fans left, some applauding, some muttering and booing, a handful of Capitals players, including Ovechkin, stood at center ice with their sticks raised in recognition of what has become a rabid fan base. It was a noble gesture, if not more than a little sad.

Boudreau was asked about his big four -- Ovechkin, Semin, Green and Backstrom -- who combined for two assists in the biggest game of the season.

"I don't know if I can answer this correctly. All four of them were almost beyond remorse in the dressing room, and what I'm saying that for is that they cared and they tried," Boudreau said. "Nobody tried as much as Alex and Nicky, and sometimes you just don't score goals. The other team takes you away and does a tremendous job, and give Montreal credit."

Boudreau is right.

On a night like this, it's hard to know whether to celebrate the victors or boot the vanquished. The Canadiens are full value for this historic come-from-behind series win. Kudos to coach Jacques Martin and the rest of the Canadiens. And no one is suggesting those talented Capitals players didn't try or didn't care.

"It's no fun at all," Backstrom said. "We've been working hard, we thought, this season, and we didn't work hard enough. We've been scoring a thousand goals in the regular season and we can't even score in the playoffs, so it's kind of not acceptable for our team."

But now, the Capitals have failed to make good on their vast potential for two straight postseasons. They led Pittsburgh 2-0 in the second round last year before losing four of five, including a 6-2 loss at home in Game 7. This year, they drew a Canadiens team that had scored 101 fewer goals in the regular season and they led 3-1 in the series, but they still couldn't get the job done.

Call it heart or soul or character or whatever you want, but the Capitals don't seem to have it. And until they find it, it's hard to imagine there won't be more of these shocking conclusions in the nation's capital.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.