"We played hard. It's tough to swallow," forward Brooks Laich said. "I don't think we exceeded anybody's expectations. We had higher aspirations."
History isn't all on the Rangers' side. Since playoff expansion, no club has played 14 games in the first two rounds and went on to capture the Cup. They did reverse a recent trend in which Washington eliminated them from the playoffs in two of the previous three years, including the Capitals' comeback from a 3-1 series deficit in the first round in 2009.
New York played a very disciplined game, taking only one penalty for delay of game against Ruslan Fedotenko in the third period. The Rangers' power play did nothing on its two chances, but keeping Washington's man-advantage unit off the ice helped secure this win.
The Capitals tried to pull Holtby for an extra skater with 1:22 left in the game, but he had to scramble back to cover the vacated net before he ever got to the bench.
He finally got off the ice, and the Capitals pressured in the Rangers' end. The puck was stuck in the corner when the final seconds ran out, and Lundqvist thrust both arms in the air as streamers poured down from the ceiling.
Matching the Capitals' quick start in Game 6, the Rangers jumped out quickly and took a 1-0 lead when Richards scored on New York's first shot.
Carl Hagelin used his speed to chase down a dump-in in the lower right corner of the Capitals' zone and curled behind the net with the puck on his backhand. As he came out the other side, Hagelin feathered a pass up to Richards, who one-timed a shot that beat Holtby inside the right post while Gaborik was in front of the net.
It was Richards' team-leading fourth goal of the series and sixth of the playoffs.
"It's a big goal. It gets the nerves out," Richards said. "You don't exhale, but you have the 1-0 lead. You got the crowd in it. They're not waiting for something to happen.
"They did it to us in Game 6 when they got an early goal. We did that tonight."
Although Washington controlled the puck for large chunks of the game, the Capitals yet again couldn't overcome the dreaded 1-0 deficit. The team that scored first won all seven games in the series. The numbers were even more stark for the Capitals, who went 0-6 in the playoffs after allowing the first goal and 7-1 when they grabbed the first lead.
Del Zotto started and finished the Rangers' second scoring play. He leveled Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin in the New York and moved the puck up ice. He eventually took a pass from Gaborik and snapped a shot past Holtby.
However, before the cheers subsided, the Capitals got back within a goal on Hamrlik's first of the playoffs.
This one was tight throughout.
Washington was outshot 12-11 in the second period, that featured a blank score sheet with no goals and no penalties. Midway through the frame, the Capitals kept the pressure on the Rangers with Ovechkin's line on the ice and camped out in the New York end for about two minutes.
As the tired Rangers chased Washington all around their zone and unable to change any players, the Capitals moved the puck side to side and up and down, seemingly keeping Lundqvist on a swivel. Many of their shots were offline, but the Capitals produced several prime chances that Lundqvist turned away — each one drawing sighs, but appreciative cheers from the towel-waving crowd.
"We came up short. We played a good team and a great goalie," Capitals forward Nicklas Backstrom said. "The Rangers played the way we played last game. They got a lead at the beginning and they controlled the game. We had some good puck possession in the second period but we couldn't get any real opportunities."
Mike Knuble had a good whack at the puck at the left post, but Lundqvist was there with his pad to keep it out.
Holtby, who became a father on Thursday, shook off Richards' early strike and seemed to gain confidence as the game wore on and the pressure built at the other end of the ice.