Capitals' ability to cope leaves an opening for hope

By Thomas Boswell
Saturday, May 1, 2010; D01

The Washington Capitals are taking the sensible course, which is also, conveniently, the path of least emotional resistance, in coping with their numbing first-round playoff loss to the Montreal Canadiens.

On Friday, the Caps circled the wagons and wisely chose to defend their core players and their coaches against the slightest hint of lost confidence, interpreting the defeat in a way that allows them, and their fans, to go forward with the least damage.

"Everybody has to take their full share of responsibility. But I can't allow five or six days to skew how I see the whole team," General Manager George McPhee said. "We have good coaches. They are going to be here a long time. That is not part of the evaluation.

"We really liked our team and still do," McPhee added. "These young star players got us to where we are." So, don't expect many, if any, of the biggest names to go anywhere.

In what amounted to an informal marathon four-hour news conference that took as long as a triple-overtime game, almost every player as well as McPhee and Coach Bruce Boudreau took turns speaking at length.

What emerged was part confessional apology to their fans, part team-wide rededication to task, as well as considerable spinning of recent events so they become even slightly endurable.

One after another on Friday, they revealed their feelings and reflections on a playoff upset so stunning that it might be described as a once-a-generation shocker if it hadn't happened to the Caps, a team that has now blown seven playoff series since 1985 in which it held a two-game lead.

McPhee was so shaken by seeing his Presidents' Trophy-winning powerhouse blow a three-games-to-one lead to last-seeded Montreal that he said: "As I was driving home [after Wednesday's 2-1 Game 7 loss] I was asking myself, 'Is there anything you could have done differently?' There wasn't. I don't think so.

"But you sure don't want to see anybody. You're looking for a trap door to hide for a little while to get over it."

If anything Boudreau seemed even more devastated, yet equally confident, in the future of his core of young stars, who he described as feeling "beyond remorse."

"Two weeks ago we were on top of the world. We felt invincible. Maybe that was part of the problem," Boudreau said. "Then they outsmart you and outplay you to a degree and you end up regretting it for a very long time."

When pressed, the coach backtracked on the words "outsmarted" and "outplayed," pointing to the Caps' huge advantage in shots in the last two games (54-21 and 42-16). Still, Boudreau's original phrases, in his first burst of public words after stewing for two days, probably reflect his bone-deep candor.

"There are a couple of things we need to do. But the core group, which is as good as any core group in the NHL, is still getting older and learning and maturing," Boudreau said. "I truly believed this was the year [to win the Stanley Cup]. Now, next year will be the year. "

Boudreau's emotional recovery -- and describing it as anything less wouldn't do justice to the sense that Friday was a self-imposed all-day Capitals show trial -- has been helped by communications of support from all over hockey.

"But I haven't talked to my mother yet. She is going to give me more crap than anybody," the coach said.

Owner Ted Leonsis showed up Thursday in a buoyant mood, elevating his troops and telling everyone to stay the course and avoid rash emotional decisions. Absolutely textbook top-management behavior.

Every Cap was in character as he faced a battery of TV cameras and mics. Alex Ovechkin took blame for the loss. "Yeah, [criticism] is fair. It was my fault. I had a chance to score goals. I didn't score goals. Sometimes you have to take the moment in your hand," he said. "You shoot. You shoot again and no goal. And you think, 'Oh, my God, what happened?' . . . You start to [focus] on it."

"I feel bad for the city," said Nicklas Backstrom, looking blond and no older than his 21 years, wearing a T-shirt that read, "Your Girlfriend Loves to Wear My Hockey Jersey."

The team's most eloquent emotional spokesman, Brooks Laich, defended Boudreau, saying: "Nobody comes to the rink earlier. Nobody watches more film. Nobody makes the game easier for his players.

"Our best players are just kids," he continued. "Most guys their age are graduating from school or getting a summer job or living at home with their parents."

Laich, who helped a mother and daughter change their flat tire on his way home after Game 7, wouldn't even concede he was the favorite player of the girl. "She said I was," he said. "But she was wearing a [Semyon] Varlamov jersey."

In this series, Caps players were criticized, accurately but facilely, for not going to the net enough to create more vision-obstructing traffic in front of hot goalie Jaroslav Halak. But this was also a day when the physical pain of hockey was on display. Each player develops his own level of tolerance for the terrors of his game. It's hard to change your risk profile on demand.

In Game 2, Eric Belanger had eight teeth knocked out by a Habs player's stick. He had root-canal surgery between periods and returned to the game.

"I was dreaming about raising the Cup. When you don't, it's hard to swallow," said Belanger, just minutes after having explained that he still can't swallow without pain.

Belanger's injury was a nick compared to what happened to Tom Poti, who now has four titanium plates and about 12 screws in his face after a Montreal shot deflected off a stick in Game 6. Doctors saw he escaped being blinded by "a couple of millimeters." Poti spent the next 30 hours with no vision in his right eye and only started seeing shadows as he was going into surgery.

Yet Poti was back at Verizon Center to see Game 7 and, provided his blurred vision returned in time, he planned to play later in this postseason run with a cage on his face. Doctors say he should begin to regain the feeling in the left side of his face again in about two months.

Of course, Poti also arrived for the team's final meeting, though under orders not to lift anything or even bend over.

In light of the physical price they all pay to play and the pain they all now feel, perhaps the Caps are entitled to interpret their collapse in any light that eases their burden. And so they are.

McPhee keeps coming back to the goalie, the goalie. A former GM called to commiserate, telling him, 'In all my hockey life I've never seen a performance like that,' " referring to Halak. McPhee called the Caps' 4-1 Game 6 loss "our best game of the season," then later elevated that defeat to "our best game ever."

As for Boudreau, he was tormented by a flight that arrived at 4 a.m. and cost his players a night's sleep, as well as a close call in Game 7 that resulted in an Ovechkin goal being waved off. "If Ovechkin scores there," Boudreau said, "maybe we're playing in Philly tonight."

From the end of Game 5, both the GM and coach felt the series turn against them and their players' tension rise.

"You could see guys hold their sticks so tight because they were dreaming of the Cup," Boudreau said. "They couldn't believe that we were [going] out in the first round . . . I'm still struggling today with losing. It was so ingrained in us: 'This is your year.' . . .

"I'm rambling," he said, and stopped.

Who says that only the winners get to write the history books?

That's just in wars. In sports you have to fight again the next season, and it's sometimes necessary, after the athletic equivalent of tragedy, to create a version of events that is both largely true and entirely bearable.

All teams do it. The Caps have joined them. Wish them well.

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