TAMPA, Fla. -- After the Washington Capitals dispatched the New York Rangers in five games of their opening-round series, it appeared all of the questions about the team from the previous three postseasons had been answered.
Washington played strong, playoff-style defense. Michal Neuvirth left no doubt about the goaltending. The Capitals were able to thrive in close games and succeed. The power play helped just enough and Washington was able to finish a series without needing seven games.
Twelve days later, the questions are back.
Tampa Bay ended Washington's 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs run swiftly, winning four games in six days and advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals -- while the Capitals are left to ponder where it went wrong.
"We were hungry. We just didn't win," captain Alex Ovechkin said. "We want to win. They want to win. Somebody has to lose. We are losing and I don't know what to say right now."
Added coach Bruce Boudreau: "There's not really much to say [after the game]. The [players] are down in the dumps, I'm down in the dumps. I just told them I was proud of them for the way they worked all year and that they never quit right until the end. That's all a coach can ask – you don't quit and you just keep plugging through. We thought we had a good chance to win, and we just didn't get it done."
It was a frustrating series for Ovechkin and Boudreau, as captain and coach continue to have their quest for NHL postseason success left unfulfilled. They are now 2-4 in postseason series since they joined forces on Thanksgiving Day in 2007, with only a pair of first-round wins against the Rangers to show for all of the spectacular regular-season results.
Ovechkin had a secondary assist on Washington's first goal in Game 4 loss, giving him 5 goals and 10 points in nine games. Both of those figures led the Capitals, but he did not have the impact in this series that Tampa Bay stars Vinny Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis did.
The Lightning were able to frustrate Ovechkin and at times he resorted to trying to beat three and four players at once. He was also on the ice for the critical goal against in the series.
When the puck off went off Ryan Malone's leg and into the net to give Tampa Bay a 4-3 lead in Game 3, Ovechkin was drifting into the defensive zone after swinging and missing at Eric Brewer's outlet pass along the right wall near center ice.
While more was expected of Ovechkin, all four of Washington's young stars underperformed in this series. Nicklas Backstrom had a lone assist. Alexander Semin had a goal in Game 1 but had little impact on the final three games. Mike Green had two difficult games, was injured in Game 3 and missed the finale.
"I don't think any team can win – any team – when your star players aren't getting the points that are needed to," Boudreau said. "It's gonna be very difficult. I've watched an awful lot of hockey in my day and it very rarely happens when your best players aren't your best players. I'm not sitting here and criticizing our players – that's just a thought.
"But our players tried, and I'll say it and again and reiterate it – they didn't leave anything on the table, right to the last three seconds when the puck went behind the net. They were still going after it. I have nothing but good things to say for the effort they gave me throughout the course of the year."
Ovechkin is set to captain the Capitals for the next decade, but whether Boudreau will continue to be his coach remains to be seen. After three years of relative serenity in the regular season (followed by playoff disappointments), this was the most adverse campaign of Boudreau's tenure.
The Capitals lost eight straight games in December -- and did it while an HBO film crew was documenting their struggles with unprecedented access. The struggles spurred Boudreau to try and reinvent his team's identity, moving from an offensive-minded club to one with more focus on defensive responsibility.
There were growing pains at first, but the risky proposition -- changing a team's way of thinking midseason -- worked out. Washington became a new type of team. The Capitals won close games. They won with goal prevention instead of trying to light up the scoreboard.
But the result proved to be the same this season as the previous three. Another season ends with disappointment, as the Capitals fell to a lower-seeded club for the fourth straight postseason.
"Quite frankly, I thought that from Day One [this was our year]," Boudreau said. "I knew it was a tough year because we went through peaks and valleys. I just thought if we persevered that something good was gonna happen, and I thought that as late as when they made it 5-2 I thought, ‘OK, this is gonna be tough.' Even before that, I thought, ‘OK, we're gonna find away. The guys want it too much, and they've come back all year in dire straits and I still thought we were gonna tie it up and win it in overtime."
Added Mike Knuble: "I think we liked our spot coming in. We felt confident starting at home and knew our opponent well. They didn't pull anything, pull any punches with us. They didn't surprise us. They played their game exactly the way they had all year and they did it well. What can you say?
"Some of their players -- I don't know if we were beaten by St. Louis and Lecavalier so much. Some of their role players were out of their minds and you have to give those guys a lot of credit. Any chance they had was in the back of our net. That's tough to stomach right now."