- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The worst part is the handshake.

Considered one of the great traditions of hockey, the post-series handshake between two teams at center ice is a brutal reminder for the losing squad. Those players spent the previous week or two expending extraordinary amounts of energy and emotion for one goal, and then it is suddenly gone.

“When you’re on the winning side, you know there is a tomorrow. When you’re on the losing side, it is like, ‘Great, now what?’ ” Washington Capitals forward Matt Bradley said. “You have to wait until next year, and then there is a full season of hockey to go through to get back to that point.”

Added captain Chris Clark: “It is crushing. That’s it; the season is over. Pack up your stuff and go home.”

For many of the Capitals’ young players, last season’s Game 7 loss to Philadelphia was their first taste of being on the losing end of a Stanley Cup playoff series. But for veterans Tom Poti and Viktor Kozlov, it was another year of working all season toward a playoff run, only for it to end early.

Poti, 32, has been on an playoff team six times before this year’s series against the New York Rangers, and six times he has been on the losing end of the handshake.

“Being a veteran guy and never getting close to winning a Cup, I’ve had to go through it a lot,” the defenseman said. “It is a crappy feeling, knowing that those guys are going on to the next round and we’ve got to go home and sit and watch.”

Three consecutive years, Poti’s Edmonton Oilers lost to the Dallas Stars, at the time one of the NHL’s powers. But he also has experienced playoff failure with the Rangers, New York Islanders and last year with the Caps.

Last season was Poti’s first Game 7, an overtime loss at Verizon Center. Now the Caps are back in the same situation, having rallied from a 3-1 series deficit with a chance to win Game 7 on home ice.

“We played really well down the stretch last year, but we used a lot of energy and emotion in the last 15 or 16 games. By the end of the series, we were kind of worn out,” Poti said. “When it was over, it was definitely tough to swallow, but we have another chance this year.”

Kozlov, 34, has been in five previous playoffs, and the center also is 0-for-his career. The only season his team won a series - in 2005-06 with New Jersey - Kozlov did not play in the Devils’ first-round sweep of the Rangers.

“It would be [important], but for me it is more important for the team,” Kozlov said. “It is a team sport and a team game, so it is not me winning or losing. For me, if we win tomorrow, I will be excited for everybody else.”

Both Poti and Kozlov had another distinction before this series: Neither had scored a postseason goal. Kozlov had six assists in 21 playoff games; Poti had eight assists in 31 games.

Kozlov has two goals in this series, including a highlight-reel tally in Game 6. Poti has been one of the surprising offensive stars for the Caps. In six games, he has two goals and six points - nearly half the 13 he had in the regular season.

“As you get older, every year that goes by is one less year that you have a chance to get your name on the ultimate prize,” Poti said. “I think there is definitely a little more desperation - I am not getting any younger.”

There are 14 other players on the Caps’ roster who have never won a Stanley Cup playoff series, but that is a function of the team’s youth; for most of them, last year was their first postseason experience. For Poti and Kozlov, a win Tuesday would be one to savor.

“I think it would be great for those guys,” Bradley said. “I think those two guys have really stepped up their games the past couple games, and it has got to be something they want. For all of us, it would be a big accomplishment to get past the first round, but we still have the hardest part of that journey ahead of us tomorrow.”

That’s because when the team wins, the best part is the handshake.

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