The Washington Times - May 5, 2011, 06:47AM

TAMPA, Fla. | After a long season of ups and downs, the Capitals made it back to Washington on Wednesday night and won’t wait long to put this season to rest.

The team will gather at Kettler Thursday morning for exit meetings, locker cleanout and a final availability session with members of the media. It all happens less than a day after they were swept out by the Lightning.

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“I don’t think any of us saw this coming down like it did,” Mike Knuble said Wednesday night. “That was the last thing in our minds.”

It’ll be one of the first things Thursday afternoon when players speak before departing for what Jason Arnott said he hopes will be a “horrible summer” and “come back hungrier next year.”

Which guys are back to show that hunger remains to be seen. General manager George McPhee will speak at 11:30 a.m. and likely will address some of that, including coach Bruce Boudreau’s job status.

Forward Brooks Laich, who is an unrestricted free agent July 1, called Boudreau and his staff a “dream team of coaches.”

“That doesn’t fall on Bruce. We’re the guys that play the game,” Laich said. “I think we’re privileged to play for these guys. I think we’re lucky to play for these guys. I’ve said it before: Any criticism directed toward them is totally unjust. They put the game plan together; it’s up to the players to execute it. I can’t say enough about our coaching staff.”

Plenty will be said, positive and negative, about the season in general that ended in such disappointing fashion. But for those expecting Boudreau’s ouster, he is set to speak at noon, as of an email sent to media members after 2 a.m. By that time the Caps likely had landed back in Washington, and it’s possible a decision had already been made to retain him.

Changes will come no matter what. The Caps have seven unrestricted free agents, including several veterans like Arnott who likely won’t be back. The 36-year-old center talked about next year’s team using “they” a lot.

“For me I think this team’s got a great mix of guys that can win,” he said. “Unfortunately it’s not gonna happen this year, but if they keep building on it and building on it and use this series as an experience to move forward next year, hopefully that’ll give ‘em the drive to do so.”