- The Washington Times - Friday, April 12, 2002

Woulda, coulda, shoulda.
There was a lot of that talk after the Washington Capitals' practice yesterday, an exercise that was surprisingly spirited considering there is nothing meaningful left to practice for other than pride.
"I woke up this morning and felt sick to my stomach," co-captain Brendan Witt said. Like most of his teammates, he had watched Carolina beat Tampa Bay the previous night, extinguishing Washington's last hope for a postseason berth. The playoffs were for other people, the people who earned the right.
"We have only ourselves to blame," said general manager George McPhee. "There are lots of factors, no excuses. We just didn't play well enough."
Said coach Ron Wilson: "It's embarrassing and very disappointing not to be in the playoffs."
Embarrassing? Peter Bondra thought about the word for a second and decided that wasn't quite right.
"It's disappointing," he said. "The last part of the season, we played so well and it was so much fun to play. So that makes it more disappointing when you have a bad season, that you can't play any more."
Actually, there are two games left, tonight in Buffalo and tomorrow night against New Jersey in the home finale. Then there will be four months of embarrassment and soul-searching.
Wilson and McPhee will use as many rookies as they can to give them a taste of what the NHL is like, and regulars who have been playing with injuries will be taken out of the lineup. Goalie Olie Kolzig, who needs to rest his strained left knee to allow for full recovery, will be replaced tonight by rookie Sebastien Charpentier, the 1995 draftee who is finally getting the opportunity to play a game.
"It's very sad that we didn't make the playoffs, especially with the expectations that were riding on this team," Witt said. "We have no one to blame but each other. We didn't get the job done. We have to learn to come and play every night instead of showing up and taking nights off."
There were nights when the Caps were just short of brilliant, but those nights were rare. Most nights the club was mediocre and today, when nearly half the teams in the league do not make postseason, mediocre was rarely good enough.
The months of October, November, December and January were unacceptable: five wins in each to go with 26 losses and eight ties. Everybody management, coaches, players, fans kept waiting for the team's patented midseason rocket trip to the top. When it finally came, March was already half over and the competition was marking days off the calendar and waiting for the second season.
Washington's power play has been ranked at or near the top all season, scoring 58 goals. The other half of the equation is that the Caps' penalty-killers have been ranked near the bottom, letting in exactly the same number of goals, and the team has been outscored 8-2 in shorthanded situations.
"We had lots of players who just weren't playing very well," said McPhee. "We had lots of games on the road, we lost Calle Johansson and Steve Konowalchuk early on, we had four or five players [injured] and then in December and January we were averaging six players out a night for about three weeks. And the players who were out were good players."
None of that matters any more. The entry draft starts June 22, in Toronto and the Caps will have a ton of picks.

Notes The team yesterday announced the signing of Graham Mink, a 22-year-old center who split time this season between the East Coast Hockey League and the American Hockey League. With Portland in the latter, the 6-foot-3, 210-pound Vermont native had 17 goals and 34 points in 56 games.

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