They packed up the pucks at Piney Orchard yesterday. Another Washington Capitals season was over, and there was no bringing it back. But it was a different kind of parting than the Caps have had in the past. They might have been beaten by the Pittsburgh Penguins, but they were far from defeated. In fact, they sounded like they were ready to play the Pens again.
“That’s what makes me so sad,” Calle Johansson said. “This was a great team, a deep team. We had four lines that could play and put the puck in the net. And after the first game [when Pittsburgh pummeled them 7-0], I thought we played good hockey… . I don’t know what to say. I’m finding it harder to understand [as the days pass], not easier.”
I’m kind of speechless myself. I thought this team had a chance to go a long way in the playoffs, perhaps even back to the finals. But the Penguins, who seemed to be hanging on by their fingernails half the time, emerged victorious in five games. Which just goes to show that in the postseason you never know.
“I’m kind of in denial right now,” Olie Kolzig said. “Watching Toronto and Ottawa play the other night, it was hard to believe that the season’s over for us. It’s a pretty empty feeling. But over time, I think I’ll feel better about myself and what we accomplished this year.”
He should. All the Capitals should. After Christmas, they played as well as any team in the league and nearly snuck off with the first seed in the Eastern Conference. Had they started their incredible run a month later… . Ah, let’s not even think about it.
You can go crazy trying to figure out what happened to the Caps. Was it strictly a case of getting a bad first-round matchup, as George McPhee and others have maintained? Or did Kolzig lose a little of his edge after playing 73 games during the regular season (my theory)? Or did the Caps make it too easy for Ron Tugnutt by firing shot after shot into his stomach or over the net (Johansson’s hypothesis)?
Here, for what it’s worth, is Ron Wilson’s explanation: “Not too many teams win the Stanley Cup without a 30-goal scorer … or anyone in the top 25 in scoring … or after finishing 17th in the league in goals. These are things that, realistically, you have to improve in. When the playoffs roll around, it’s harder to score, not easier. We based everything in the regular season on defense and getting timely goals. We didn’t get the timely goals in the playoffs.”
It’s a familiar Capitals refrain we need more scoring but there’s a certain amount of validity to it. When you hold a high-powered team like the Penguins to two goals, as the Caps did in Games 2 and 5, you had better win. The Caps lost both.
(Even when you add a proven goal-scorer, though, there are no guarantees. Look at the Florida Panthers. They made the big deal for Pavel Bure a year ago, got a league-high 59 goals out of him this season and then watched him take four games to get on the board in the New Jersey series. By then, they were down, 3-zip.)
In trying to increase their scoring output, Wilson says, the Capitals won’t make the same mistake they made after going to the finals in ‘98. They won’t expect their older players, guys like Adam Oates, to put up bigger numbers. Instead, they’ll look to their younger players Chris Simon, Richard Zednik, Jeff Halpern, Jan Bulis, Sergei Gonchar, et al. They’re the ones whose stars are still rising (the Caps hope). And all of them have shown 25-to-30-goal capability.
“The good thing about the last two seasons is that we’ve had a lot of good experiences,” Kolzig said. “The year after we went to the finals, we thought it was going to be easier to get back to the playoffs than it was. We learned that when you make it to the finals, everybody is gunning for you.
“This season, I think our confidence was still a little shaken [after missing the playoffs], and we didn’t play that well in the beginning. But then we started to believe in ourselves and the system, and from January to April we were pretty much unbeatable. If we can take that into next year, I think we’re going to start out great. And it would really help if we could because I don’t know that we can duplicate what we did in January and February [this season]. What we did in January and February was unbelievable.”
It was indeed. That might be the saddest thing of all about the Capitals’ early demise. Because they were knocked out in the first round, nobody outside of Washington, that is will know how good this team was. It was the best Caps team I’ve ever seen, better than the one that went to the finals in ‘98, better than the one that won 50 games in ‘85-86, better than the one that rang up 330 goals in ‘91-92.
From Olie on out, from Billington to Zednik, from the baby-faced Bulis to the oracular Oates, I would take this Capitals team over any of them. So cheer up, Caps fans. Most of the pieces are already in place. Ted Leonsis and George McPhee just have to add a few more.