2012 NHL playoffs: Capitals reinvented themselves but still fell short

The Washington Capitals went through a startling transformation since their season began more than seven months ago. A team that struggled in the face of adversity to the point that it prompted a coaching change in the fall grew resilient in the spring; a group that began the year divided by a caste system of responsibilities eventually united.

For all the steps forward the Capitals took in reinventing themselves as a gritty, hard-working, defensive-oriented team under Dale Hunter’s guidance as coach, though, the result didn’t change.

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Washington’s loss in Game 7 Saturday night and elimination at the hands of the New York Rangers marked the fifth consecutive season that the team failed to advance beyond the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Given everything the team went through, from the coaching change to not clinching a playoff berth until the penultimate game of the regular season, reaching a seventh game in the conference semifinals was considered an accomplishment to some players. Still, many felt that this team, which in the postseason finally started to reap the successes of all the alterations in ideology, fell short of what it could truly achieve.

“I’m gonna view it as an underachieved season, in my opinion. I know a lot of people don’t feel the same way,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “The group was extremely good, we were a very good team. . . . We didn’t show it during the regular season, but it only mattered come this time, playoffs, and we started playing really well and had probably our worst game in our Game 7, which is very, very unfortunate. We’re probably going to view it as a failure, just because we didn’t do what we thought we should do.”

This was, after all, the same lineup and team that garnered preseason predictions as favorites to reach not just the second round but the Stanley Cup finals to challenge for a championship.

Whether expectations truly changed after the tumultuous season, which in addition to the coaching and system change saw the Capitals go 50 games without Mike Green and 40 without Nicklas Backstrom because of various injuries, will be reflected most in which moves the organization’s top management chooses to make in the offseason.

Arguably any season that doesn’t end in a title can be viewed as a disappointment, but the Capitals still believe they made progress, even if the year ended with a far-too-familiar conclusion.

“I don’t think we exceeded anybody’s expectations. We certainly had more aspirations than what the season turned out. There’s no solace in any of that,” forward Brooks Laich said. “I thought we did some really good things. I thought the way it ended last year and the way it ended this year, I thought we took more positive steps — I thought we were a lot closer this year than last year.”

Laich went on to say something several other players did, that this year’s Capitals “played the right way.” By that, they meant the patient, all-for-one style with its emphasis on shot-blocking, earning one’s ice time and the steely resolve it fostered as the year progressed.

“I think we were playing way better this year than ever in the playoffs,” Backstrom said. “Everybody was committed and doing their job. We came up short and that’s the way it is.”

Whether Washington will stick with its newfound identity as a defensive-oriented team moving forward remains to be seen and may hinge significantly on whether Hunter returns to coach another year. Regardless of the system, though, players said they want to see the mental fortitude and resiliency that helped the team rebound from disappointments throughout the postseason return.

“You didn’t see us just fold whenever we lost a game or got down,” Alzner said. “It was nice to see that we battled as hard as we did, but we’re still missing something, obviously.”

Even with the disappointment of losing, the sting of Game 7 this year had a different feeling than the flat showing in the 2011 second round against Tampa Bay or the disbelief that surfaced after being knocked out by the eighth seed in 2010. This time, the Capitals knew they could have won and moved on as easily as they could have lost.

“You think you could’ve won. You think you were right there,” forward Mike Knuble said. “At certain times you get beat in a playoff series and you look in the mirror and you can’t fool yourself, you didn’t have a chance to win that series, ultimately. I think our players should be very proud of our effort.”

 
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