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For Caps, It's "Wait 'Til Next Year"

by Mike Vogel / Washington Capitals
The last couple of days have been difficult ones for Capitals fans, to say the least.

Now that the season has come to such an abrupt and premature halt, the time for reflection and analysis is here. Fingers will be pointed and blame will be apportioned, because that is the nature of the hockey and the pro sports business. Only one team wins it all, and the rest are always playing catch-up, trying to figure out what went wrong, what needs to be torn down, tweaked, built up or scrapped altogether.

Washington’s regular season performance was amazing in so many ways. There is really no need to rehash the litany of the team’s offensive achievements here; they’ve been well-chronicled. When it’s all said and done, what is more amazing, what the Caps achieved over an 82-game regular season, or what the Caps failed to achieve in a three-game span in late April with their season hanging in the balance? It is difficult to answer that, but it is easy to say which will linger longer in the collective conscious and subconscious of its rabid and rapidly growing fan base.

What had been a magical season came to a screeching halt when by far the league’s most potent offense – featuring by far the league’s most lethal power play – managed just three goals (none of them on the power play) on 134 shots (and a stunning total of 256 shots attempted) in three games, needing to win only one of those games against a team that amassed 33 fewer points during the regular season.

After being eliminated in Game 7 of the second round of the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs, the Caps had high hopes of moving further this spring.

“We were hoping to continue to progress and go farther than the second round this year,” says Caps’ GM George McPhee. “Certainly we came to training camp with the expectation that we could be a good team. And we were a good team. We had a heck of a year. We had a heck of a year and we were doing well in the series. [We were] up 3-1 and we didn’t finish it off. We are really disappointed.”

It’s hard to believe. A team that lost four games in regulation in the second half of the season lost four games in a playoff series -- three of them in succession -- to an eighth-seeded team. A team that lost only five of its 41 home games in regulation lost three of four games on home ice in this series, and has now lost three of four Game 7s on home ice in the last three springs. A team that is 80-22-12 on Verizon Center ice in the regular season under coach Bruce Boudreau is 5-7 on the same sheet in the postseason.

Plenty of people will choose to focus on Alex Ovechkin’s disallowed goal in the first minute of Wednesday’s Game 7, and rightfully so. With the Habs clinging to a tenuous 1-0 lead, referee Brad Watson ruled that Mike Knuble was in the crease, waiving off the Ovechkin goal. This unorthodox call certainly adds to the collective angst of Caps nation in the early post-mortem of the 2009-10 campaign. Knuble makes his living from that exact spot. And not once all season was Knuble – or anyone else on the Capitals or their opponents, for that matter – ever called for that violation. What are the odds? In 89 games this season, there were more than 500 goals scored in Caps’ games. That’s a miniscule possibility.

“I was disappointed with the call, but it’s not what cost us the series,” declares McPhee. “And if you’re waiting until the deciding game for that kind of moment, then you’ve probably waited too long. I didn’t like that call, but I don’t think refereeing cost us the series. I thought the refereeing for the most part, in six of the seven games, was really good.

“You’re not going to get every call, but I would have liked to have had that call. Because now you’ve got momentum. It’s a tie game in the third period and I like our chances then with the way we seem to come on.

“We had our chances. When you’re up 3-1, you’ve got three chances. You get a couple mulligans. You get chances to win and we didn’t.”

That said, these sorts of agonizing incidents have long been a part of Washington’s dubious postseason lore. What’s particularly vexing about this series is this: had the Capitals come out in the first period of Game 5 at Verizon Center with what they brought for the entirety of Games 6 and 7, there likely would have been no need for Games 6 and 7.

“The way I see it, the deciding moments of a series don’t always occur in the deciding game,” says McPhee. “There are some things that happen along the way that can turn a series. I really felt we were up 3-1 and we were coming back home, and we didn’t start Game 5 very well. Whether we thought it was too easy is something that has come up with people.

“To me, sitting up on a plane at four in the morning [after a Game 4 win in Montreal] was a bad omen,” laments McPhee. “Not being able to get off that plane and saying, ‘Geez, how is this going to effect us 36 hours from now?’ Because we had players who lost a night’s sleep. That could have been a factor.

“All I know is that we didn’t start that game very well. And that’s why Bruce was really agitated after that game, because we both knew that game was important. If we let Montreal back up, we were going to have a tough time the rest of the series. That’s exactly what happened. They got through that game, they won the game, and they went home [for Game 6].

“I was concerned about winning a game in Montreal in Game 6, and that may have been our best game of the season. We were really good, and if their goaltender had been above average, they would have lost the game. He wasn’t above average; he was extraordinary. I thought we played well and we didn’t win the series because a goaltender shut us down for three games in a row. He was really good. That’s the way it goes sometimes.”

Fans hoped the Caps had learned a hard lesson last season after they led the Penguins 2-0 in the Eastern Conference Seimfinal Series, only to let Pittsburgh up off the mat to win the set in seven games. Now the Caps must wait until next spring to vindicate themselves. Another stellar regular season won’t do it; the Caps won the first Presidents’ Trophy in franchise history and they’re done after the first round. The Philadelphia Flyers snuck into the postseason by virtue of a shootout win in the final game of the regular season, and they’re now preparing to take on the Boston Bruins in the second round. Postseason success trumps anything that happens in the regular season, anytime.

“Everybody has to take their full share of responsibility here,” states McPhee. “I can’t lose sight that we do have a good team, it is well coached, we have good players, we had a good season. We were good through training camp, all through the season and good through the first part of the playoff series. I can’t let five or six days where things didn’t go well for us to skew what we think of this team, the organization and the staff. We have good coaches and they’re going to be here a long time, so that part of the equation is not an issue for me.

“When you go through something like this, this is the time when you have all kinds of experts out there telling us what we should and should not have done. I understand how that process goes. We really liked out team, and still do. I just have to sit down with the coaches next week and the pro scouts and analyze our season and figure out what we have to do to be even better. I think we can be a better team next year than we were this year.”

Washington is generally characterized as a young team, and its core is certainly still on the youthful side. But in the NHL’s salary cap era, it is increasingly more difficult to keep a good team intact as the young core players enter their respective prime years.

“I think there are a couple of things we have to do,” says Boudreau. We haven’t completely addressed everything yet. There is going to be personnel changes; there always is. That’s something that goes without saying. I think the core group here, which is as good as any core group in the NHL, is still getting older and learning and maturing. They’ve gone from [being] young kids to where they’ve got to be the older guys bringing up the younger guys. We’re talking about that in meetings and I think the guys we’ve talked to so far want that responsibility, but they’ve got to realize that it’s something that you can want, but you have to live by it, too. There is a code there that you have to live by.”

As is always the case in pro sports, some of the faces will change here in the District in 2010-11.

“We have good players coming along,” says McPhee. “There will be five or six changes to the roster like there are every year. We’ll sit down with the puzzle next week and see what pieces fit and what don’t. But I like where the organization is.”
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