ARLINGTON, Va. – Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee arrived at the team's practice facility Wednesday morning, rode the elevator with defenseman Mike Green and prepared to address his players one final time this season.
The Capitals met for exit interviews Wednesday less than 48 hours after a 5-0 loss in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series against the New York Rangers at Verizon Center.
"Coming up in the elevator, [Green] mentioned that he didn't want to have to sit down and have this talk," McPhee said of the exit interview. "But he also said ‘When we win [the Stanley Cup], it's going to be that much better. It's going to be glorious.' … I hope he's right."
The question remains whether that day will ever come for the only NHL team to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in each of the past six years and not advance past the second round during that time.
This year's first-round exit to the Rangers saw the Capitals blow leads of 2-0 and 3-2 in the best-of-7 series, but the core of the team still believes they have the makeup to break through.
"The window hasn't closed," said Brooks Laich, the longest-tenured player with the organization. "We aren't one year away from this being our last shot at it. Mike Green is getting better, Alex Ovechkin -- we saw a resurgence from him. The goaltending is getting better each year and those guys are starting to be stars in the League. There are very bright days ahead for this organization."
McPhee said, "We've got a lot of good young players and we'll keep going to war with them. They've made the playoffs six years in a row. How many teams have done that? It's not easy to do that in this League anymore. And they played their guts out in the series."
The Capitals, though, did not score in Games 6 and 7 and grew increasingly frustrated with the officiating throughout the series. Washington was shorthanded 28 times over the seven games and had 16 power plays.
"I didn't think that part of the game, from the League's standpoint, was all that good," McPhee said. "I didn't like the refereeing, but if you complain about it during the series, then you're accused of trying to gain an edge. And if you complain about it after a series is over, then you're whining and it's sour grapes. So I'm not going to do that."
McPhee said he likes his team as it is constructed, but given the Capitals followed a fifth Southeast Division title in six years with another early playoff exit, questions have again surfaced regarding whether the team is built for postseason success.
"We're still young," said No.1 center Nicklas Backstrom, who had a goal and two assists against the Rangers. "We can always get better. That's everybody. From the fans' standpoint, I know it's frustrating, obviously, to see this team never win in the playoffs. We're all frustrated. We obviously want to win and you always try to do your best out there, but sometimes you fail."
The Capitals are confident in the progress they made under first year coach Adam Oates, going from a team that began 2-8-1 to one that finished 15-2-2, and they head into the offseason with stability behind the bench and a system in place.
"I think a lot of what was overlooked was not just the players trying to embrace Oates and embrace his systems, but he had to learn the players as well," forward Troy Brouwer said. "And when you don't have that grace period of exhibition and training camp … finding roles and defining roles, that carried over into regular season and normally that kind of gets figured out in exhibition. So next year, he knows pretty much all the players in the system now and how they play and I'm sure he's got a good idea already where everybody will fit into the lineup next season."
It is still not known whether that lineup will include unrestricted free agents Mike Ribeiro, Matt Hendricks or Tom Poti. Ribeiro finished second on the team with 36 assists and 49 points in 48 regular-season games and tied for the NHL lead with 27 power-play points.
"I think if we keep the same group for a number of years, at some point, you'll break through," said Ribeiro, 33, who added he is seeking a four- or five-year contract. "I don't want to be selfish by signing too much and not being able to get other guys here or re-sign guys here. Once you make the playoffs, you want to go back, and you see the potential that we have here. If we can bring in guys or be better next year as a team, your chance of winning will increase, and that's where I want to be."
Laich said, "The future is very bright. You get sick and tired of saying that -- trust me, I've been here long enough -- people say you have a good team, but I want to win right now. It's difficult to win, but with our future and moving forward, it's tough to say right now because we just got shellacked 5-0 [in Game 7]. But moving forward, we have a very good chance to win and compete for the Stanley Cup. I firmly believe that."
Erat was acquired by the Capitals in a trade with the Nashville Predators on April 3 and had a goal and three points in nine regular-season games with Washington.
"I feel OK now, probably ready for the second round," he said Wednesday. "It's kind of sad, when I was getting ready to go back and I'm not going to be able to. It's a great organization here, and I still got [two] years left on the contract, and I came here to win and I hope it's going to happen next year."
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