In the end, the margin was four points. Two extra wins over the course of an 82-game season and the Capitals would be preparing for the Stanley Cup playoffs for the seventh year in a row.
Instead, the organization faces serious questions as it prepares for an unexpectedly early offseason, its general manager, George McPhee, without a contract extension, its owner, Ted Leonsis, weighing what direction he wants to see his franchise go now after this setback that one player called "a catastrophic year" even if it just missed out on the NHL's postseason party.
A 1-0 shootout loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Sunday afternoon at Verizon Center summed up the season well for the Caps, who set an NHL record for shootout games with 21.
"There are always situations that need to be dealt with," forward Troy Brouwer said. "A lot of them are out of my control so I don't worry about them. If changes come then we'll deal with them as they do, but as of right now, as a player, I'm committed to this team for a few years now and I'm excited to be here."
Washington finished 38-30-14 and with 90 standings points. That was three points behind the Eastern Conference's two wild card teams, the Columbus Blue Jackets (43-32-7) and Detroit Red Wings (39-28-15), who finished with 93. The Caps, however, would have lost the tiebreaker to both teams, which is regulation and overtime wins.
There are many blown leads – 13 times two-goal advantages disappeared – to contemplate, games that got away. All of them mattered. Each played a role in Washington missing out on playoff hockey, something that hadn't happened since 2007.
"Especially now, it seems like a waste of a year," forward Jason Chimera said. "Been so used to playing for the Stanley Cup. That's all you dream of as a kid and as a pro, too. Some guys have a couple in here, some guys have one and a lot of us don't have any so it hurts any time you're out."
Sunday's game featured a nice finale for goalie Braden Holtby, who endured a rough season that he began as the clear No. 1. A Dec. 10 win over the Lightning – a game where Holtby was pulled – is where he believes the season began to unravel. It was at least a small victory to end the year with a 32-save, 65-minute shutout.
"It was that game that sparked the change [to fewer starts], and who was going to play most of the games," Holtby said. "Strictly sentimentally, it was nice to get the revenge and show that you can play against a team that has some offensive firepower like they do."
But the Caps managed little at the other end of the rink against a Tampa Bay team that needed a win to secure home-ice advantage in the conference quarterfinals against Montreal.
The Lightning outshot Washington 32-18, controlled play most of the way and were deserving winners with Matt Carle scoring the lone goal in the shootout to give his team the victory. Both teams finished with one power play each. More than a quarter of the Caps' games this season went to a shootout.
"Especially the beginning of the season it seemed like every single game was in extra time," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "It was good when we kept winning every one of those shootouts. But we dried up a little bit there and [lost] points that could've helped in the end."
Now, speculation turns toward the future of McPhee and, by extension, Oates, who at times late in the year didn't appear to be on the same page. Forward Martin Erat, acquired for top prospect Filip Forsberg last spring, saw limited playing time early this season before demanding a trade.
Left wing Dustin Penner, a trade deadline acquisition this March, didn't play on the top line as he had in Anaheim, which was the best team in the Western Conference, and saw the majority of his minutes in Washington on the fourth line.
"For me, all I focused is doing my job, doing the best I can," was all Oates said when asked if he thinks he'll return for the 2014-15 season, which would be his third with the organization. "And don't worry about it."
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