RALEIGH, N.C., — About 15 Washington Capitals players gathered at a restaurant near the team’s hotel here in North Carolina Wednesday night to watch the two NHL games that would determine their fate together. They entered hopeful this disappointing season could be extended at least one more day.
But by the time they left, after Columbus defeated Dallas, 3-1, and Detroit earned a point by forcing overtime against Pittsburgh, the reality that loomed over this locker room for weeks now finally had to be confronted.
“We can only blame ourselves. We put ourselves in this position,” center Nicklas Backstrom said.
Thursday morning’s pregame skate was unlike anything this franchise has seen in seven years. Washington will not qualify for the postseason for the first time since 2007, turning tonight’s tilt with the Carolina Hurricanes, who are also out of the playoff race, into a pseudo-exhibition contest.
When the Capitals entered PNC Arena, there were no jokes or laughter, said forward Troy Brouwer, and the locker room felt “dead.” Goalie Braden Holtby described the mood as “somber.” Backstrom admitted the entire scene felt “odd.”
“It gives you kind of an empty feeling when you know there’s nothing that you’re ultimately playing for,” forward Eric Fehr said.
Coach Adam Oates talked with the team about giving maximum effort over the last three games of the regular season, if only for the fans that pay money to see them play. Only Wednesday night did the finality of it all sink for the coach since “you really believe that you’re still gonna get in til the last second.”
“Even when we were out of playoff position, we felt like we were gonna make it,” Fehr added. “We felt like that turnaround was coming and we were gonna go on that long streak and that was gonna carry us into the playoffs. That’s what I honestly believed, and I never thought we were gonna be in this position. I thought we were gonna find a way out of it.”
Some players had been preparing for this moment. Already thoughts had turned toward a future that seemed so certain just a few years ago. Now, this organization could be on the verge of major change.
“It’s a little bit different obviously than the last years when there’s a lot more heartbreak when it comes to game sevens or losing in the playoffs,” Holtby said. “This is more frustration and something that we’re gonna have to use to our advantage in the future.”
Captain Alex Ovechkin told reporters, “Maybe it’s good. Maybe it’s bad. We’ll see next year.”
Few, though, wanted to get into specifically what went sour this season. Not with the pain of missing the playoffs so fresh.
But, Backstrom noted, “After Christmas, we fell apart a little bit.” Fehr said previous teams “bounced back quicker” from losing streaks than this one. Holtby said many of the players on this year’s squad went through more adversity than they had their entire career. Forward Jason Chimera admitted he never envisioned missing out on the postseason after he came to this roster via trade back in 2010, when the Capitals and their young guns were the talk of the NHL.
“We were winning Presidents Trophy a couple years ago and now all of a sudden we’re out of the playoffs,” Backstrom said. “Obviously, you’re thinking about what went wrong.”
Oates said it was not the right time to place blame just yet and that his speech to the team revolved around “being a pro.” There was no getting around reality, though. As Ovechkin put it, “Basically, like season is over for us.”
“Obviously, it’s a hard day to be a pro,” Oates said. “We’re all very disappointed, of course, and I just talked about how … ‘It’s about us.’ We didn’t get the job done. We’ve got to be better. We’ve got to be better as coaches. We’ve got to be better as players. We’ve got to collectively just be better.”