Dozens of media members huddled around Alex Ovechkin, and several more crowded next to Chris Clark and Brian Pothier on Wednesday night, just minutes after the Washington Capitals’ season ended in an ugly loss to the rival Pittsburgh Penguins.
But the defining image in the team’s dressing room was defenseman Tom Poti sitting at his stall, staring blankly at the middle of the room until a reporter approached him. He seemed impervious to the racket around him - stunned into a near-catatonic state.
This edition of the Washington Capitals came close to accomplishing all of their goals, and then it was all gone after one bad night at Verizon Center. Even a day later, members of the team were still wondering what had happened.
“It’s good steps for us,” Ovechkin said. “We take good experience and take the bad experience. We can’t play like we played when we got a lead 2-0 [in the series]. We have to make a little bit more push, and everybody now knows we were so close, but close is not good enough. Right now, it’s a bad time, and of course for couple weeks or months we’ll feel terrible, but it is what it is.”
After last season’s hectic push to the postseason, just getting there was a great accomplishment. The sting of losing in seven games to Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals quickly subsided because hockey was back in the District.
This year, there was no need for a dramatic rush to the finish, no need to scour for scores from other games and hope for help in the final week of the regular season. The Caps cruised to a second straight Southeast Division title and spent much of the second half of the season waiting for the playoffs.
Perhaps that is why this loss to the Penguins is likely to linger longer. There was so much anticipation for a long postseason run, and the Caps were one win from being halfway to capturing the Stanley Cup.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow,” forward Brooks Laich said. “We did a lot of good things this year, but [Wednesday night’s] game is how this season is going to be remembered. And it’s a shame because I think a lot of our players did a lot of good things. As an organization, I thought we did a lot of good things. It’s a sour note to go out on.”
There is a long list of reasons to remember the 2008-09 campaign, and this classic series between two rival organizations will be at the top.
Mike Green had a historic regular season, leading the league’s defensemen in goals and points and setting an NHL record for goals in consecutive games by a player at his position. He will be in Las Vegas next month as one of three finalists for the Norris Trophy, awarded to the best defenseman in the league.
Ovechkin will be there, too, hoping to collect league MVP honors for a second consecutive season. He shrugged off a slow start and a break to be with his sick grandfather to lead the league by a wide margin in goals and shots for the second year in a row. He finished three points behind in the scoring race to Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin, who figures to be his top competition for the Hart and Pearson trophies.
The team also had unprecedented success in the regular season. Washington finished with 50 wins and 108 points, surpassing the franchise record of 107 set 23 years ago. The Caps also won a playoff series for the first time since reaching the Stanley Cup Finals in 1998.
“We’re very close to being a very good team,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “Maybe all it is, is a little bit more maturity in some areas, and I think we’ll be able to make that step. It’s like, I would believe, next year that if you’re asking me this again… we’d be very disappointed if we weren’t in the final four.”