“We didn’t get many power plays in the series,” McPhee said. “I don’t know why. We had to kill too many penalties. I don’t know why.
“I didn’t think that part of the game, from a league standpoint, was all that good. I didn’t like the refereeing, but if you complain about it during the series, you’re accused of trying to gain an edge, and if you complain about it after a series is over, then you’re whining and it’s sour grapes.”
McPhee is not alone in the organization in wondering about the lopsided officiating — which led to 16 power plays for Washington and 28 for New York. Ovechkin told reporters that the league “wanted Game 7,” and a team source said Wednesday that the officiating had gotten into the heads of some players after New York had five power plays and the Capitals none in Game 6, a 1-0 Rangers win.
But that doesn’t mean players aren’t trying to decipher how these playoff exits keep happening. Monday’s loss to the Rangers was the fifth Game 7 loss in the past six years, the third at home. Three times — 2009 against Pittsburgh, 2010 against Montreal and this year against the Rangers — they led the series either 2-0 or 3-1. Some players suggested the team must figure out a way to develop what forward Troy Brouwer called “a killer instinct.”
“The common thread for me is that we take every series to seven games,” forward Eric Fehr said. “We’ve had leads in just about every series we’ve played in, and we haven’t been able to close it out. I think that’s the one thing we need to learn is that Game 6 needs to be our new Game 7.”
‘Sense of pride’
When such failures define a team, there is a natural tendency to look at the leaders. Ovechkin is the captain, yet he was absent from the final team meeting because he had already left to play for Russia in the World Championship. Oates said Ovechkin texted him repeatedly until 2 a.m. Tuesday, the hours after the loss. “He was very upset,” Oates said. They met later Tuesday. The coach said he had no issues with leadership from Ovechkin or others. Players, too, defended the team’s dressing room culture.
“There’s a tremendous sense of pride in the guys that have been here, to when we finished dead last, finished 15th, and brought it to the Stanley Cup contender that we believe we are today,” Laich said. “We feel we have excellent leadership — excellent leadership. That is not a point on our team that we are worried about or concerned about or has anything to do with loss of hockey games.”
Yet in the spring, the losses still come. That pattern can make people wonder if tweaks are in order. Internally, there is little of that discussion.
“I’m a first-year coach, and when my boss asks me, I’m going to tell him you can’t push the panic button,” Oates said. “Now, that’s my opinion. It’s up to him and [owner] Ted [Leonsis] and all that to decide on that. . . .
“You know, Nick Backstrom had me for one year. He’s going to be better next year, I feel. These guys haven’t reached their limits. And I think they started to feel that too. ‘Oh, we’re improving. We’re not just surviving, we’re improving.’
“Last year the Caps, to me, survived. They brought in [former coach Dale Hunter], it was survival mode, ‘Oh, can we get there? Oh my God.’ Then a little bit of Cinderella story in the playoffs, right? I don’t feel that way. We expected to win. They didn’t expect to win last year.”
Yet they didn’t win this year, either. But from the first few hours of the offseason, it appears that this team — at least the bones and heart — will return in the fall to try another time.
“You don’t get players like this,” McPhee said. “Where do you get another Ovechkin? Nick Backstrom’s a heck of a player. Mike Green’s a heck of a player. [Defenseman John] Carlson’s on his way up. We’ve got a lot of good young players, and keep going to war with them.”
Mike Wise contributed to this report.