NEW YORK — Dale Hunter has gone through plenty of playoff-series losses as a player and coach. In the minutes after the Washington Capitals’ season ended Saturday night, Hunter talked about how this particular defeat to the New York Rangers felt.
“They feel all the same,” he said.
Or as right wing Troy Brouwer said, “The day that you stop playing hockey for the summer is one of the worst days of the year.” Not surprisingly, In the immediate aftermath of their 2-1 Game 7 loss at Madison Square Garden the Caps expressed disappointment about not living up to expectations.
But in reality, this was a season of varied expectations, from The Hockey News’ pick of the Caps as Stanley Cup champions through the coaching change, a slump that endangered even a playoff appearance and then an impressive run to make it past the Boston Bruins and into the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Players preferred to point to preseason projections of the Caps being Cup contenders. With that in mind, they fell short.
“I’m going to view it as an underachieved season, in my opinion. I know a lot of people don’t feel the same way. The group was extremely good, we were a very good team,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “We didn’t show it during the regular season, but it only mattered come this time, playoffs. … We’re probably going to view it as a failure, just because we didn’t do what we thought we should do.”
While players weren’t eager to talk about The Hockey News shining the spotlight on them in the preseason, they knew this should’ve been the year. The “Young Guns ” — Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green — were grown up now, and the pieces were in place from goaltender Tomas Vokoun out.
Transitioning from Bruce Boudreau to Hunter, forward Brooks Laich said there still was confidence that this was, indeed, a playoff team.
“Unfortunately, we had to make the change and whatever, but we still believed and management did, too. When the trade deadline came around, we didn’t do anything in the personnel that we had here,” Laich said. “It’s been interesting to see our team evolve a little bit with the change in identity and the change in mentality.”
That change went hand-in-hand with Backstrom missing 40 games with a concussion and Green missing 41 with a groin injury, two major holes the Caps were forced to fill as they underwent the process of defining an identity.
By late February and early March, it seemed as if just making the playoffs would be a success. There were some players-only meetings and bumps, but the Caps got on the same page.
“You could tell from all the guys in the room it was a very open group, nothing to hide with us,” Alzner said. “Guys could yell at each other, and we’d change what we need to change, and that was another one of the good qualities that we had.”
Not wanting to be called underdogs, the Capitals took to the lack of expectations well in the first round against the defending champion Boston Bruins, riding a focus on shot-blocking, 22-year-old goaltender Braden Holtby and Game 7 overtime hero Joel Ward into a rematch with the Rangers.
Thirteen of their 14 playoff games were decided by one goal, including the elimination loss.
Alzner said the goal every year is to get better, go further. The Caps were one of the final five teams playing, and this was not a sweep like last year’s second-round exit courtesy of the Tampa Bay Lightning, so it’s something.
But this wasn’t the conclusion the Caps wanted.
“We certainly had more aspirations than what the season turned out,” Laich said. “There’s no solace in any of that.”
Especially given the potential changes that could come, from Hunter on down. Alexander Semin, Dennis Wideman, Mike Knuble, Jeff Halpern and Vokoun are unrestricted free agents, so the makeup of this group that bought into its new coach’s system could be totally different. Hunter’s status is unclear, too.
And the Capitals didn’t accomplish enough in Alzner’s eyes to build off this year and this run.
“There’s no positives that are going to carry over to next season, I don’t think,” the defenseman said. “If we would have gone all the way to the finals, maybe take some positives, but it’s just not good enough.”
It’s about winning the Cup, and there’s a belief in the Caps’ room that they’re getting closer.
“Coming into the playoffs, you could really see the team’s true colors, how they wanted to win, how guys wanted to do what needed to be done to win in the playoffs: blocking shots, playing maybe a defensive style when they’re not used to it,” Brouwer said.
Carry-over or not, the Caps have to start over again, but with the knowledge that this recipe works.
“It’s the right way to play. To win, that’s the way you have to play it,” Hunter said. “Next year, you start off, and that’s your goal, to win.”