- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 13, 2012

This ending for the Washington Capitals feels different than the ones before it, and there’s a reason for that. For the first time since the club returned to the playoffs in 2008, the usual excuses/explanations don’t apply.

After all, the Capitals weren’t eliminated by the New York Rangers, in seven gruelling games, because they were inexperienced or lacked the necessary fight or didn’t attend to their defensive duties. Nor can you blame it on ill health or a referee’s capriciousness. It’s also nice to know the outcome didn’t have anything to do with the home-ice advantage. The Caps won once at Madison Square Garden and came within 7.6 seconds of winning twice.

No, Ted Leonsis’ warriors lost this series because the other team was better, more proficient at playoff hockey. Not light years better, but better enough to advance to the conference championship — a place the Alex Ovechkin Capitals still haven’t been. That should provide the organization with some much-needed clarity as it plots its offseason course, decides what additions and subtractions to make to the roster. The Caps aren’t the most talented team in the East, never mind the league.

I say that because there’s always been the suggestion that they were, that it was just a matter of Ovie and the other Capitals Youth growing up. If we heard George McPhee say, “It’s a process” once, we heard him say it 100 times. But here we are at the end of Ovie’s seventh season — Year 7 of “the process” — and the Caps still haven’t gotten out of the second round. They’re still nine wins away from the Stanley Cup.

So this latest playoff performance should be received with tempered enthusiasm. Yes, the Capitals showed admirable grit in outgrinding the defending champion Boston Bruins and going the distance with the Rangers. They held together in a historic succession of close games, and they were great at damage control, at keeping bad from becoming worse. You could argue that finally -finally — the Caps “got it,” understood what it takes to be successful in the postseason. (Sweat and sacrifice for starters.)

But they still fell well short of their objective. And they were knocked out, I’ll just remind you, by a club they beat in five games a year ago. In the space of 12 months, the Rangers went from being an eighth seed to being a conference finalist (and perhaps more). In the same 12 months, the Capitals went being from a second-round casualty to being … a second-round casualty. See what I mean about tempered enthusiasm?

How far have the Capitals really come? It all depends on how you look at it. You could say they’re one of just three teams — Philadelphia and Nashville being the others — to make it out of the first round the past two seasons. Nothing to sneeze at there. But you also could say they’re a team that reached the second round for the first time three years ago, and they haven’t been able to go further.

It also bears mentioning that there are no superpowers in the post-lockout NHL. The league is as competitive as it has ever been, sure, but there are no clubs like the Wayne Gretzky Edmonton Oilers or Steve Yzerman Detroit Red Wings serving as a road block for the Capitals. Consider:

• The Bruins, who won it all last June, couldn’t get past the Caps in the first round this season.

• The Flyers, swept in Round 2 by Boston last year, just lost four straight to New Jersey.

• Pittsburgh, meanwhile, blew a 3-1 first-round lead to Tampa Bay last season and went down 3-0 to Philly in the first round this season. That’s six straight playoff losses, for those of you scoring at home.

Other franchises, in other words — flagship franchises, even — have had their postseason troubles, not just the Capitals. Still, you have to admit: Conditions are ripe for the Caps to make a deep playoff run, and so far they haven’t. Indeed, only once in their eight playoff series the past five years have they disposed of an opponent in fewer than seven games. They just haven’t shown themselves to be that superior to the other guys.

I wrote at the time of the trade deadline, when McPhee opted to stand pat, that the Capitals needed to shake up the roster a bit — not completely blow it up, but definitely do more than just fill in around the edges. Nothing that’s happened in the past month has changed my mind. How much longer, for instance, can the Caps pretend that Alexander Semin is going to help them win anything? He scored zero goals in the seven games against the Rangers, just as he scored zero goals in the seven games against the Canadiens in 2010 and zero goals in the seven games against the Pens in 2009. That’s three season-ending series in the past four years in which Semin has failed to put the puck in the net. Enough.

It all goes back to the need to get better. The Capitals can no longer assume that, if they just keep their core together and wait for it to mature, they can win the Cup and maybe multiple Cups — not after they just played in a very mature fashion and got eliminated in the second round.