That is not a typo! Fans are going OOF this morning after that kick in the gut and while I tried to keep my expectations low going into the season because of how the off-season went and the injuries to Laich and Backstrom early on, the team sucked me in with their play and gave me and all fans hope that this year would be something special. Unfortunately.....
A season of ups and downs came to a crashing and resounding halt last night as the Capitals inexplicably failed to show up for a series deciding Game 7 against the New York Rangers. One game removed from a heavily one-sided and poorly officiated Game 6 in New York the Caps saw the team's disappointing history once again rear its ugly head. Game 7's are not good to the Caps, now 2-7 all-time. Of course this series never should have gone 7 games. Despite the Rangers being one of the least penalized teams, and the Caps one of the most during the regular season, there was a lot of questionable calls or non-calls throughout the series that extended it to play until there was nothing left.
Some people say "God hates Game 7's" or "God hates the Caps" by no stretch of the imagination is that remotely true, unless you believe that Gary Bettman is indeed God, which he himself does, so if that's the case then I guess it would be true. If you listen to Ovechkin after the game he said somebody wanted it to go 7 games, the NHL needed ratings, the NHL needed extra revenue, well after the first two East series ended in six or less it kinda makes sense. In fact of the "Original Six" that made the playoffs Chicago advanced quickly against Minnesota, Montreal went out quickly in an ugly series against Ottawa and the other 4 (NYR, Boston, Toronto and Detroit) all went 7 games with three of those teams winning, Toronto being the exception but they were playing Boston and blew a 4-1 lead to lose in OT.
I'm not saying there is a conspiracy and I'm am salty over what happened. Its one thing had the Capitals completely blew it themselves like they did against Montreal a few years back or Tampa Bay but this series was dictated by the refs who did a poor job in most of the game. However good teams find their way to overcome it. If there was one good thing to come of it, you have to hang your hat on the fact that the Caps penalty kill was very good against the Rangers allowing only 2 goals.
All of that said the Caps fans should be satisfied. The season could have been completely lost to the lockout. Once the season started fans had high expectations, they've become accustom to their team making the playoffs the past 8 or so years. However the season started terribly. I, as did many, chalked it up to a 3rd (or 4th) coaching staff and regimen in the past year. Once the team fully bought in to Oates' system, learned the power play, and became 100% healthy, or at least as close as they would get over the final two months of the season, the Caps rallied from being the worst team in the NHL to the 3rd seed, albeit by default to being the winner of the Southeast Division...a division which no team seemed to want to win and which if not for the NHL's set up they'd have been looking at a lower seed.
Regardless the Caps saw a resurgence from Alex Ovechkin which could end up with him being the MVP of the league, if only because Sidney Crosby ended up breaking his jaw and missing the final month or so of the season. A season that saw Mike Green healthy for the first time in 3 years recapture his offensive prowess. A season that saw a Power Play start slow and finish at 25%. The Caps have a long way to go though. Their defense let their goaltending down far too many times. Their second tier players either struggled (Chimera, Mojo, Perreault) until late in the season or were injured (Laich) for most of it. Penalties became the team's undoing early in the season and ultimately at the end. To win you have to stay out of the penalty box or your team will be too tired to hold a lead or make a comeback at the end. The Caps main problem was the delay of game penalty though they also were a team hit with unsportsmanlike conducts for chirping the refs, mainly Mike Ribeiro. Ribeiro was also a huge positive as he was the 2nd line center the team has been seeking for years but with the lower salary cap, how much Ribs wants and his stupid penalties you have to wonder if he'll be back.
Next season won't be an easier. I've stated for years the Caps window of opportunity would be closing this season, that's not to say they don't still have a few more years it just won't be as easy. Now that the Southeast Division doesn't exist they'll be facing the Rangers, Penguins, Flyers Devils and Islanders more often and in turn it will make getting to the playoffs that much tougher. Of course gritty wins against those teams could help increase the Caps likelihood for advancement in the Playoffs as it will make them that much more tougher and hopefully smarter, even if the playoffs are a totally different ballgame. One positive, and huge lift, would be if the Caps are able to bring over Evgeny Kustensov. That kid could be better than Ovechkin and if he joins the team late in the season he could end up being a secret weapon if he adapts to the NHL game quickly and the other teams don't have a good scouting report on him or aren't used to him since they haven't played against him.
As the off-season approaches changes are bound to happen though most guys are signed for next season. In my mind the locks to return, unless the team needs to get under the cap or can acquire other pieces to build their depth with, are Ovechkin, Backstrom, Brouwer, Green, Carlson, Oleksy, Hillen, Alzner, Laich, Hendricks, Beagle, Erat, and Holtby. Players on the bubble, based on cap situation, their play this season or the fact that they could be replaced internally, include Perreault, Johansson, Riberio, Ward, Fehr, Chimera, Erskine, Crabb, Volpatti and Neuvirth. Players that won't be back are Wolski, Schultz, and Poti. And players who could fill needs internally include Wilson, Kundratek, Orlov, and Kustensov. All of this is my opinion and I'd be fine with seeing most of the roster return but I know its not overly likely. Some of my "safe" guys could be traded though I'd hate to see them go since they're vital cogs and the radio guys are already saying to trade Backstrom and Green because they have the most value and will reduce their cap number. I feel that's drastic talk out of emotion in the hours after a let down, though I'm sure on other blogs like Japer's Rink or Russian Machine Never Breaks fans have been reading that for months, definitely years, but with better analysis as to why.
Alas the season is over and for the next few days and week speculation will run rampant. You can't but feel that let down with so much left to play and with the talent this team has and has had for the past 5+ years and you can't help but wonder if or when it will be our time. As my favorite reporter (who I swear I'm in love with...if that's possible, though I'll always keep it professional between us, unless she doesn't want me to lol) put it the way I've felt for years "a professional goal of mine to cover Stanley cup finals. Just may not happen here in DC" (say it ain't so..tho we'll chalk it up to the years of underachievement). For me the Caps are one reason I've stuck around this area, I love my team, I love going to games, there is no better atmosphere in sports. I still have the taste of success and the bitterness of defeat from the team's 1998 run that ended in a sweep in the Stanley Cup Finals. I do fear that I may never see them play another game in the Finals whether I'm still in the DMV or if I decide to call some other place home. I'll always know Caps fans are the best and if you live or lived here and grew up a Caps fan, you'll always be pulling for them no matter where you are. I'd love to bring myself far enough along in my writings to be able to cover this team one day but I won't deny this is just a hobby for me, one that I don't do nearly enough. Maybe this will light that fire inside me again to take my writing to the next level. At least for the time being I know that my blood pressure can now return to normal and my sports stress has been lessened...until football season.