An era has not ended. A five-year period of Young Guns and end-to-end, highlight-film scoring plays has not crashed bitterly. Instead, it has been transformed internally — with many of the same players on the ice, but with all the Caps approaching the game completely differently.
The sometimes selfish, often unfocused and occasionally downright demoralized Caps of the past four postseasons have, apparently disappeared. Instead, the Capitals have coped with the gradual aging, injury and erosion of some of their brightest stars and have adjusted on the fly — made a midcourse correction, one of the most difficult tasks in sport.
“It’s the right way to play to win it,” Hunter said of the Stanley Cup quest. “You see the teams that are left. It’s tough hockey, tooth and nail.
“It’s tough [to lose] and it should be tough. We were just a goal short.”
In the past, what Washington often lacked was much more than a goal. It was a combination of qualities that command respect in the NHL and which Hunter, of course, calls character. He might as well say “pain in pursuit of progress,” because everything he demands hurts in one way or another.
Whether a Capitals player must throw his body in front of slap shots, bang on the boards, focus on defense first or sacrifice minutes so the right players, by skill-set, not star reputation, can be on the ice at the proper times — there is always an element of sacrifice. That, always and everywhere, leads to the key word in team sports, which would be. . . come on, you know. . . “TEAM.”
The thing the recent Caps have never really been.
“Everyone played their hearts out,” defenseman John Carlson said. “We had a bunch of warriors in here who were willing to do whatever it takes. We just didn’t get the bounced this time. Lundqvist just came up huge for them. It [stinks].”
Athletic grief — and this game had it — at least brings dignity and, eventually, promise for the future. Perhaps you have to have stood in too many Capitals’ season-ending locker rooms when the word “chokers” hung in the air — like a cartoon bubble above the heads of the Caps themselves — to know what progress this genuine, hard-earned sadness really is.
“It was tooth and nail the whole seven games,” said Matt Hendricks, who epitomizes the Hunter player who does everything — except score goals or draw the novice’s eye. “Came down to the last goal.”
This narrow loss will hurt for days and weeks, especially because the Caps allowed a Brad Richards goal just 92 seconds into the battle; that lone score set a tone for the entire evening. The team that scored first won every game in this series. Washington, which fell behind 2-0 at 10 minutes 5 seconds into the third period, but made it a game again when Roman Hamrlik scored just 38 seconds later, seemed under that spell all night. Hard verdict: behind for 58:08.