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Capitals need a different ending

Silent springs getting harder for Ovechkin and Co. to take

by Tom Gulitti @tomgulittinhl / Staff Writer

ARLINGTON, Va. -- The pain was still very fresh for the Washington Capitals on Thursday when they gathered for the final time before going their separate ways for the summer.

Two days after the Capitals' season ended with a 4-3 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 6 of their Eastern Conference Second Round series, the reality that there won't be another game to get ready for until October was settling in. They expected more games this spring, more of themselves, but again failed to reach the conference final.

"Obviously, you don't want to stand here and talk about finishing the year and all that kind of stuff," Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said before heading home to Moscow to represent Russia in the IIHF World Championship.

Video: Bonino's OT goal bounces Caps, Sends Pens to ECF

This is a familiar routine for Ovechkin. It will be his 12th time playing in the World Championship and the 10th time after the Capitals' season ended.

As much as Ovechkin takes pride in playing for his country, it's a cycle he'd love to break.

"Of course, you don't want go," Ovechkin said. "Like right now, I'd rather stay here and play Game 7."

But there was no Game 7 to play and no guarantee the Capitals won't be going through this again next season. They believed this was the season they'd finally break through and win the organization's first championship.

Player after player spoke Thursday about how much more painful it was to be eliminated because of that.

"This is the most hurt I've been in my career," defenseman Matt Niskanen said. "You don't know how often opportunities are going to come along where we have this kind of team. You don't. Things happen. Rosters change. Momentum changes. I've been on some teams where you've got a pretty good chance and because of the people on your team you think you always have a chance, but this sure felt like the year."

The Capitals set a franchise record with 56 wins and won the Presidents' Trophy during the regular season, but never were able to flip the switch and get back to their top level during the playoffs. It didn't help that they ran into the Penguins, who were the NHL's best team over the second half of the regular season and have elevated their game in the playoffs.

"It's all about peaking at the right time," defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "Maybe we peaked at the wrong time."

Three-time Stanley Cup winner Justin Williams quickly dismissed that theory, however, saying, "There's no such thing" as peaking too early.

"You always want to be your best," Williams said.

The Capitals haven't been able to win when it matters most, leaving them wondering again what it will take for them to get beyond the second round, which they haven't done since they made the organization's lone Stanley Cup Final appearance in 1998.

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"It [stinks] when you lose in the first round, second round or third round. It doesn't matter," Ovechkin said. "Your goal is win the Cup."

With few roster changes expected this summer, maybe, as some of them suggested, the Capitals can use this season's disappointment as motivation next season.

"You can tell on the faces of our players, our staff, our organization that last year hurt a lot, but this year hurt even more," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. "So, I think you've got a bunch of angry players that will be really ready for next year."

As Niskanen acknowledged, however, the "we'll get them next year" refrain "sounds like a loser's mentality." Plus, for some players, the next years eventually run out.

Ovechkin, who will turn 31 on Sept. 17, isn't at that point yet, but knows his window is starting to close. There's a lot of work ahead to get back to this point.

"I start thinking about the summer, again training and all that kind of stuff," Ovechkin said. "In this position, you're in good shape, and right now you have to take months off or whatever and start doing it again. It's not fun, to be honest with you. And, when you get older, you have to take more time to practice and train [than] when you were 21 or 22 years old. But, again, it's life and you have to live with it."

Video: PIT@WSH, Gm 5: Ovechkin fires a one-timer for PPG

After all the 50-goal seasons and individual accolades, Ovechkin is still missing that Stanley Cup ring some say he needs to cement his legacy as one of the game's all-time greats. Even those who have played with him for a short time can see how much it drives him.

"He wears his heart on his sleeve," Williams said. "He is what he is and he doesn't hide anything. He's emotional. He's one of the best talents I've ever seen and he wants, just like everybody else, to win something here. Ovi's been great ever since I got here, and we'll continue to help each other and win a championship."

Ovechkin's longtime linemate Nicklas Backstrom expressed faith that will happen, promising, "I know we're going to do it. We're going to do it one day." But, it's understandable to wonder if that "one day" will ever come.

"Every year you get older and you see that your window gets smaller and smaller," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "It's hard to say that, but you keep going. Guys win Cups in the last year of their career or the second-to-last year. It just happens at some point. I'm a very positive person, so I will hope and assume it's going to happen next year."

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