- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 8, 2009

The prevailing opinion in this area is that the Washington Capitals are built to contend for the next several seasons, that they are impervious to a Pittsburgh Penguins-esque step backward next season.

A season after making the Stanley Cup Finals, the Penguins are trying to scrape their way into the playoffs. Should the Caps make a similarly deep run this postseason, can they maintain that momentum in 2009-10?

“We think we’re built for the long run and this isn’t going to be our only chance to contend,” Caps general manager George McPhee said. “We hope to do it every year for a while.”

There have been several factors in the Penguins’ slide from burgeoning dynasty to mediocrity. First, there was an exodus of free agents in the offseason. Teams that make deep playoff runs often have players who become more valuable to other organizations because of their playoff success, and the Penguins saw that firsthand this past summer.

Forwards Ryan Malone, Jarkko Ruutu, Georges Laraque and Adam Hall all signed contracts with other teams that had either too much money or terms too long for Pittsburgh general manger Ray Shero to fit under the salary cap.

Instead of keeping valuable role players, Shero gave long-term contracts to such core players as Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury and Brooks Orpik (another guy who earned a bigger contract with his postseason exploits).

While the Caps don’t have as many pending free agents, a deep playoff run could drive up the price of players including Sergei Fedorov, Viktor Kozlov, Donald Brashear and Shaone Morrisonn. McPhee also will have to worry about signing a few core players - notably Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin, who will be restricted free agents after next season.

“It is unfortunate that you’re going to have other teams come in and pay more than you think the player is worth, and it happened to them,” McPhee said. “Obviously, they had to let some guys go. The numbers didn’t make sense, and they still don’t make sense. I thought Pittsburgh did the right thing, and now they’re restocked and they’re going to be fine.”

The next problem for the Penguins was injuries. By the time the team left for Europe to open the regular season, they were without their top two defensemen, Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney, because of surgeries that required months of recovery.

Whitney was not the same player when he came back and has been traded. Gonchar just recently returned to the lineup.

Sure, the Caps have dealt with many injuries, but how would this team respond to not having Mike Green and Tom Poti for half the season or longer?

“You just look at Green and what’s he has accomplished this year. Just take one of those guys out, and that’s 20 less goals from your defense and 25 to 30 minutes a night that you have to come up with from somebody else,” said Penguins forward Matt Cooke, a former Caps player. “It is not an excuse and injuries are part of the game, but I don’t think we would have had as many struggles if we had everybody in the lineup. We’d be right up near the top if we had them.”

Added Caps center Boyd Gordon: “In their case, Gonchar is a great player and quarterbacks their power play. Losing guys like that certainly doesn’t help your cause. If we lost [Green] and [Poti], it would really hurt us.”

The final hurdle to overcome is mental and hard to define. Teams that lose in the Stanley Cup Finals typically have not fared well the next year. No runner-up has won a playoff series the next season since Dallas in 2001 and one team in the past 40 years (Edmonton in 1984) has won the Cup a year after losing in the finals.

Pittsburgh, with a roster boasting some of the top young players in the league, was supposed to be the team to break that trend. Instead, the Penguins have routinely dropped games to teams with inferior talent.

“It was definitely draining,” said Caps captain Chris Clark, who lost in the finals with Calgary in 2004. “That last day - the plane trip home was the most depressing time. You sit back and feel just how tired you are. You don’t think about it while you’re playing, but it hits you during that four or five days after that you take to recover.”

Added McPhee: “It is a hard thing to go all the way to the finals and not win. When you’re there, it is just you and one team keeping you from the Cup. When you don’t win it, you come back the next season it is you and 29 teams to beat. It takes a heck of a lot to get there and the thought of doing all that work again - it is a daunting task and some teams just can’t do it.”

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