Today was the day the Washington Capitals packed up their lockers at Kettler Iceplex in Arlington, Va. Needless to say, they have a lot of baggage.
Crushed by the rival Pittsburgh Penguins in the anticlimactic Game 7 of their classic series, the Capitals faced questions about the disappointing end of their season and what the future holds for the offseason.
There was talk about injuries: Alexander Ovechkin's(notes) groin pull he suffered in Game 4 against the New York Rangers and a bum wrist he played with in the playoffs, both of which required pregame injections (but no surgery); Alexander Semin's(notes) sprained thumb, which coach Bruce Boudreau said hindered his stickhandling; broken feet for defensemen John Erskine(notes) and Tom Poti(notes); and a shoulder injury to defenseman Mike Green(notes) that contributed to his disastrous postseason.
(Green was "overwhelmed" by the national spotlight placed on him this season, according to Boudreau. One thing is certain: Green's level of, and commitment to, fitness needs to improve for next season.)
There was plenty of talk about personnel decisions. General manager George McPhee said he wouldn't buy out center Michael Nylander's(notes) contract, despite an obviously ill-fit with the franchise. There was uncertainty about the futures of UFAs Donald Brashear(notes), Viktor Kozlov(notes) and Sergei Fedorov(notes); Feds said he "cannot imagine myself retired. I don't know why." He said he hoped to return to the Capitals, and anticipated his hockey career continuing next season.
As for the goaltending situation, Boudreau said there was a chance four goalies could be in the running for jobs next fall: Playoff darling Simeon Varlamov(notes), deposed starter Jose Theodore(notes), AHL Hershey Bears ace Michal Neuvirth(notes) and UFA Brent Johnson(notes). Theodore says he still sees himself as a No. 1 goalie, intends to compete for the job and will not request a trade.
But beyond ailments and transactions, there was talk about what the Capitals didn't do in these playoffs that cost them victories. Like starting games poorly and playing too many elimination games. Or like failing to do the thing that helped Sidney Crosby(notes) outplay Alexander Ovechkin in the conference semifinals: Having key offensive players modulate and elevate their games when it counts the most.
Capitals center David Steckel extended the series with the Pittsburgh Penguins to seven games with an overtime deflection goal in front of the crease.
But he's still trying to get over the Game 7 letdown.
"You can try and forget about it. And then when that doesn't work, you grab a beer or two," said Steckel, who like a good boy from Milwaukee prefers Miller Lite.
Boudreau said that's what that line is expected to do. The trick is attempting to get the Capitals' top six forwards in any given game to do the same, especially in the postseason.
"Sometimes you try and change people. And sometimes they don't want to change," he said.
"Sometimes you've got guys that you know are going to play a little on the perimeter. And you can tell them 'till the cows come home [to go to the net] and it doesn't work. But they've got such great strengths in other places. What do you do?"
What you do is watch Sidney Crosby become Dave Andreychuk for seven games, scoring goal after goal on Varlamov's welcome mat. It was an underrated facet of this game, it isn't now; and his grit in going to the net was an inspiration for the Penguins.
That level of commitment from the Capitals' best players isn't there yet.
"I personally think it's philosophical. Your top six are your most skilled forwards. They're not going to go to the net as much as our third and fourth lines. That's how they score goals. Because it's the playoffs ... yeah, they may need to go to the net harder," said Steckel.
"You have to do both. There's no one or the other: You're scoring your goals and you're going to the net. That's the mentality you have to have in the playoffs."
Optimism remains high around the Capitals, just 48 hours after one of the lowest points in recent franchise history. The core is young, and the reinforcements in Hersey are impressive. McPhee talked about trades more than free agent poaching as a way to improve the team.
But in the end, the biggest improvements need to come from the players under contract: Finding the determination not to play from behind in the postseason, and doing the kinds of things players on the Penguins were willing to do to win.
Here's most of Ovechkin's getaway day presser: