- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 5, 2011

A little more than a week ago, before the Washington Capitals started their second-round series against Tampa Bay, legitimate Stanley Cup contender talk surrounded this team. It was deserved based on how the Caps earned the top seed in the East and rolled over the New York Rangers.

Now, after four bad games in the span of six days against the Lightning, a season full of peaks and valleys is over.

“We envisioned a long series and a successful playoff run and we thought we had the guys to do it,” veteran right wing Mike Knuble said Thursday. “We still do and just as players, it won’t sink in for a little bit.”

It might take a bit for it to sink in for players, coaches and fans. It looked like the Caps had evolved from the team that lost to the Montreal Canadiens in the first round a year ago, thanks to a new defensive system and the knowledge that playoff hockey requires a different kind of mentality and increased level of play.

But the result is the same, as the Caps went through exit meetings Thursday as part of what coach Bruce Boudreau called “the day that 29 teams hate.”.

“It’s kind of more of the same,” said right wing Boyd Gordon. “It’s pretty disappointing. It’s definitely not what I thought was going to happen; I don’t think anybody did. To get swept, that’s as bad as it gets. It’s a tough pill to swallow.”

Change is coming to the Caps, whether it’s in the form of a coaching change, radical shake-up or small tweaks. Based on general manager George McPhee’s comments Thursday, expect minor changes.

“It’s a good team and we’ll continue to add to it to make it better,” he said. “But we’ll see. We’ll see what the summer brings.”

Right now most players are still too focused on what went wrong and how a season that began with Cup aspirations went into the tank so quickly. Boudreau said he thought from Day One this team could do anything — a hope that lasted into the third period of Game 4 when the Lightning finally extinguished it with a big lead.

How it all fell apart remains something of a mystery. How could a team with this much talent make the same mistakes and again get eliminated before even the conference finals? Center Brooks Laich said he’s “getting sick of this feeling.”

“Disbelief a little bit, just the fact that we all realized we had a strong team in there and we came up really short in that last series,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “It’s tough. It’s tough to handle ‘cause you don’t get too many opportunities where you have really good teams, and I think we’ve been fortunate here for the last two or three years to have exceptional teams. It just doesn’t happen so often. It’s tough to know it slipped away like that.”

But in following with owner Ted Leonsis and McPhee’s plan of having a generationally great team that contends every season, don’t expect the front office to blow things up. The Caps have yet to win a Cup, but the plan remains the plan for now.

“I was really pleased with our regular season. We changed our play along the way and introduced a lot of young guys, won a round that was not easy but we won it and you get to the second round,” McPhee said. “I’m disappointed we didn’t play better. We put another good team on the ice and [next year] we’ll try and do the same thing.”

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