Break-Up Day at KettlerPosted on January 14, 2013 by Mike Vogel
I can remember a lot of happy moments in the visiting locker room at the St. Pete Times Forum. The Caps won the first two games of their first round series against the Lightning in Tampa back in 2003, and a winning locker room is always a happy place, even more so in the playoffs. The first Mentors’ Trip – annual journey that incorporates the players’ dads, brothers and other mentors – finished with a flourish in Tampa in 2009. Mike Green tied the NHL record for defensemen for most consecutive games with a goal and Michal Neuvirth won his first NHL start in that contest. I’ll never forget how happy their dads were, or the video we shot of all the dads and their sons celebrating in the locker room afterwards. Weeks later, Alex Ovechkin scored his 50th goal of the season in Tampa and his noteworthy “hot stick” celebration followed. So did some shaving cream antics in that visiting locker room after the game. The mood and atmosphere in that same locker room last night was as far to the other end of the spectrum as you can imagine. No one – least of all anyone wearing a Capitals sweater – expected to lose the second-round series with the Lightning in just four games. Here were the Capitals, minutes after a second loss in 24 hours, a Game 4 setback to the Lightning completed the sweep that no one saw coming, trying to explain how a season that ended with such high hopes ended so suddenly. A week ago today, the Caps had just learned that the Lightning would be their second-round foe and they were practicing in preparation for Game 1 against the Bolts. A mere two weeks after a triumphant flight home from New York that followed Jason Chimera’s game-winning double-overtime goal that gave the Caps a 3-1 lead in their first-round series against the Rangers, the Caps were on that same plane, headed back to D.C. after the Game 4 loss to Tampa Bay. “When you get to the second round,” says Caps general manager George McPhee, “and the margin between the teams is razor thin. They played a better series than we did and deserved to win. I’m disappointed with that. I’m disappointed we didn’t play better. But we put another good team on the ice, and we’ll continue to try to do the same thing.” In the playoffs, things can turn quickly. Losing more than two straight games can mean the end. “Obviously I’m disappointed,” said Caps coach Bruce Boudreau on Thursday morning as his players assembled one final time to clear out their lockers. “This is the day that 29 teams hate. Only one team can be happy when it’s all said and done. You end up having your exit meetings and saying goodbye to the players and everything else. It’s not a day that anybody, relishes, but it’s a reality for most people almost every year.” Now, the Caps’ collective braintrust will let the dust settle. Then they’ll reflect, evaluate, decide what to do next, decide what happens next. Brooks Laich, who could have played his last game as a Capital on Wednesday in Tampa Bay, was asked whether he believed the Caps were primed for a playoff run after their first-round win over the Rangers. “One series doesn’t make anything,” replied Laich. “You have to go through a lot more than that. I was comfortable with our game when we beat the Rangers. “Game 1 [of the Tampa Bay series], I didn’t think we played really well. Game 2, I thought we maybe deserved to win. Even [Game 3] I thought aside from  seconds I thought we played really good. The effort has been there from the guys. The effort and the compete was there. We weren’t able to get it done. I don’t know what to say.” “They have everything that it takes to win, no question,” said center Jason Arnott, already referring to the Caps as “they” just minutes after the Game 4 loss. “It’s a tough thing to do. Playoffs can go one way or another. You’ve got to have luck; you’ve got to have bounces go your way. “For me, I think this team has got a great mix of guys that can win. Unfortunately, it’s not going to happen this year. But if they can keep building on it and building on it and use this series as an experience to move forward next year, hopefully that will give them the drive to do so.” Break-up day is when many hidden injuries are revealed, and when others remain hidden. Boudreau lauded Mike Knuble’s bravery; the right wing came back to play with a broken thumb that required surgery and some pins. Jason Arnott’s March ailment was inaccurately reported as a groin ailment at the time; he actually underwent arthroscopic knee surgery. John Carlson played through an injury and it wasn’t the first time this season he had done so. He still didn’t miss a game all season. Mike Green played through a hip flexor injury until he couldn’t any more. Nicklas Backstrom re-injured a previously broken thumb in the New York series. Eric Fehr will undergo off-season shoulder surgery. Dennis Wideman, out with a gnarly hematoma that normally necessitates months on the sidelines, gamely wanted to return for Games 2 and 3. Had the Tampa Bay series gone six or seven games, he might have. A Wideman return might have made a difference. His puck-moving acumen and power play prowess were sorely missed during his absence, and Washington could feature a trio of deadly right-handed puck movers in 2011-12 in him, Green and Carlson. “I thought that was our biggest issue in the playoffs,” says McPhee. “It’s really hard to replace top defensemen. We managed to get through the season without a Tom Poti, who’s played really good hockey for us the last three years. And then we missed Mike Green, and then we pick up a good player like Wideman, who was a great fit, and then we miss him [in the playoffs]. “You get in the playoffs and Green and Carlson both get injured. I thought we had an imbalance on the blueline. What you really want to have are puck-movers, they keep you out of trouble in your own end, they get the puck to your forwards to create more offense to get more pucks on net. And the only two we had in the lineup were Carlson and Green that generate that offense. “The first three games [of the Tampa Bay series], both of them didn’t finish one game and then Carlson played injured the whole series and we lost Mike near the end. We spent too much time in our own zone, we weren’t getting pucks to forwards and we weren’t getting enough on the net.” Laich, Arnott, Boyd Gordon, Matt Bradley, Scott Hannan, Marco Sturm and Sean Collins are all impending unrestricted free agents and might have pulled their Capitals’ sweaters off for the final time last night. Break-up day is somewhat like the last day of school. You know you’ll be seeing a lot of these guys again in September. You also know you won’t be seeing others, and often you’re not positive which guys fall into which camps. “I’m glad I don’t have to make that decision,” says Knuble. “As a player, that’s a knee-jerk reaction. Do you want to blow it up or change it? I think that’s a real knee jerk and George isn’t like that. Will there be changes? Of course. Of course there are going to be. Who knows what it’s going to be and probably rightfully so. There will be different faces here next year, that’s a guarantee.” Many of the Caps have endured four of these playoff exits, some of which have more abrupt and unsettling than others. Caps defenseman Karl Alzner made his NHL playoff debut in Washington’s Game 7 loss to Montreal last spring, and got his first full taste of the Stanley Cup playoffs in 2011. He was a member of the 2009 and 2010 Calder Cup champion Hershey Bears teams, so he knows the tastes of victory and defeat. “One, you take the feeling of how everybody feels right now,” said Alzner, when asked what he’ll retain from this year’s experience. “You don’t want to feel that, and I’ve been very fortunate the last two seasons. That’s unfamiliar territory right now. “Remember this coming into next year’s playoffs. Remember how you had to play to be successful and how we had to battle in our first series to get through, and how Tampa battled in this series to do what they did to us. Always have that in the back of your mind and make sure that everybody – if there’s new guys on the team or even just reminding the guys that are here – [remembers] that that’s how it felt [this] year and this is what we have to do to win [next] year.” I’m a short-timer here. I’ve only been watching, following and covering this team for the last 16 seasons. There are plenty of you out there who have been invested for twice as long. I’m not going to tell you how to feel or not feel, what to think or not to think. These two days – elimination day and break-up day – are the toughest two days of every hockey season. Better days are ahead. The schedule will be out next month. The Caps will keep aiming to be the last team to have their break-up day, the last team to shave their playoff beards.
For the second straight year, the Capitals own the 26th overall selection in the NHL’s annual Entry Draft. The No. 26 overall pick is the first of five picks currently in the Washington portfolio for the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. The Capitals don’t hold a pick in the second and third rounds as a result