PITTSBURGH -- Alex Ovechkin stood in an all-too-familiar setting, surrounded by cameras, and tried to explain as best he could why his team's season had once again ended too early, the gray specks in his beard another reminder that this annual, soul-crushing ritual is getting mighty old.
"I'm proud of my team, proud of my teammates, proud no matter what happened," the Washington Capitals captain said in a voice that was barely audible. "But again, we lost in the second round. It sucks."
They went down swinging, at least. This wasn't the Capitals team of yesteryear that exited with a whimper. No, this one erased a 3-0 deficit against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday night in Game 6 and forced overtime, producing yet another classic to be remembered between the two rivals.
"Our heart and our drive and our commitment got us back into it [Tuesday night]," said veteran Capitals winger Justin Williams. "But the playoffs are about owning big moments, and we didn't own enough of them."
Williams, who scored his 14th goal in his 19th career elimination game, has been on both sides of this coin. The three-time Stanley Cup winner saw a champion in this roster when the season began.
"I've been a lot of teams with Cup aspirations," said Williams. "Some teams can say it but not really mean it. This team thought it had what it takes. It's fresh in the mind right now. It hurts."
And so, after being the class of the NHL all year, yet another second-round exit is so hard to digest for a team that gave all the signs of finally being the right mix to get this franchise over the top.
"I don't know what to say, to be honest with you," said Ovechkin, 30. "It's a great group of guys. I'm proud of my team, but it's hard to say something right now."
It's hard because after a decade of disappointing playoff exits, you run out of ways to explain them.
Ovechkin should not wear this one. With seven points (two goals and five assists) in six games in the series against the Penguins, the captain did his job.
"He did all the right things, said all the right things," Williams said of Ovechkin. "It certainly isn't on him, it's about us as a team not being quite good enough. I thought we were going to do it. Everyone in this room thought we were going to do it. But to have it just end abruptly like that, it stings. We're going to have to pick up and move on."
It is completely unfair to suggest this was some kind of choke job by a team that perennially underachieves at this time of year, never having been past the second round since No. 8 made his NHL entry, in 2005-06.
No, history will show in this particular season that despite blowing away the field in winning the Presidents' Trophy as the regular-season champs, the Capitals happened to run into the NHL's best team over the past three months of the season -- an absolute buzz saw in the Mike Sullivan-era, rebooted Penguins.
You might argue that's a bit of an unfair second-round matchup. Some say it shows the current playoffs setup is flawed.
Then again, a team that was so superior in so many ways during the regular season should be able to beat anyone in its way if it were truly its time to win a Stanley Cup.
In this series, the Caps will regret not winning either Game 3 in Pittsburgh, when they completely outshot and outchanced the Penguins but ran into a wall named Matt Murray, or Game 4, when Pittsburgh didn't have star defenseman Kris Letang in the lineup and yet the Caps still couldn't take advantage of that massive absence.
That's where the series was lost. The Caps needed to come home tied 2-2 in the series, not down 3-1 entering Game 5.
What happens next for this Caps squad will be interesting, as it always is. Some fans will lobby for Washington to blow up its roster, similar to the way many St. Louis Blues fans felt a year ago after their team made yet another first-round exit. Washington would be wise to consider the manner in which St. Louis GM Doug Armstrong tackled last offseason, making important moves such as the T.J. Oshie-for-Troy Brouwer trade, but resisting making sweeping changes or blowing up the core. He chose to believe once more in what he had, and his team came back for another try.
It's what I believe Caps GM Brian MacLellan should do. Make some moves, yes, but not drop a grenade on the whole thing. "There's no way I would blow them up," said a rival Eastern Conference hockey executive. "You don't do that to a 120-point team. But I do think they need more team speed. That showed itself against Pittsburgh."
For starters, the blueliners were exposed by the Penguins' speed. After the top three of John Carlson, Matt Niskanen and Karl Alzner, this is a blue-line corps that thins out in a hurry. This is the area I would try to seriously upgrade this summer.
Brooks Orpik, 35, is a respected veteran who has played some big games in his career, but he looked a step behind in this series and the fact he's got three more years on his deal at a $5.5 million cap hit is a problem for Washington. They need to find a way to move that somehow while retooling the back end of that defense.
More speed up front would be beneficial, too.
Otherwise, this is still a core that could one day figure it out. From Ovechkin to Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov to Carlson and Vezina Trophy finalist Braden Holtby, this is a core that has the ability to still contend. No doubt that sounds hollow to most Caps fans, who have had their hearts shattered every spring for a decade, twice by the rival Penguins, but believe me when I say it is not time to blow this up.
"Every year, lots of expectations with some great players, something we're missing ..." said Ovechkin. "This group of guys can do better and be in just the second round. We have the best goalie in the league, we have a solid group of guys on the defensive side, all four lines can play well. We can see it. We just didn't execute when we had a chance to put the puck in the net."
Williams, brought in July 1 to help the Caps get over their playoff wobbles, still couldn't believe standing there in the visitors' room Tuesday night that it was over.
"We thoroughly thought entering the year that this was it. We can do it," said Williams. "And everybody believed it. ... The margin of error is miniscule. And this team has been on the losing end the last couple of years.
"We weren't able to get it done tonight. It's frustrating, it hurts, it's fresh in my mind right now. You just don't think your season is going to be over tonight."
Sadly, it's a feeling that's all too familiar to several core players on his team.