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New coach, new system, familiar ending for Capitals

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Associated Press
5/13/2012 3:42:54 PM
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WASHINGTON -- All those changes didn't get the Washington Capitals any further in the playoffs.

That's the big-picture view, the one that says this season was another disappointing performance by an immensely talented roster.

Remember last summer, when the Capitals in quick succession added five players who were the final pieces to really, for-sure, this-time-without-a-doubt take them to the Stanley Cup? Remember how they were the fashionable choice to win the Eastern Conference in September, a notion reinforced after their 7-0 start?

Then there's the other view, the one that focuses on the last two months, when Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green finally got healthy and the team started to find a comfort level with the defensive mindset preached by new coach Dale Hunter, who had taken over when the tuned-out, run-and-gun Bruce Boudreau was fired in November.

After barely scraping into the playoffs, the Capitals eliminated the second-seeded and defending champion Boston Bruins in a seven-game, low-scoring series and nearly did the same to the top-seeded New York Rangers.

"You know, we had our chances to win it, and so did they," Hunter said following Saturday night's 2-1 Game 7 loss at Madison Square Garden. "It's like two good teams battling each other. What can you say? It's just that we came up short tonight. We had our chances that we didn't bury. And they buried two, and we only got one."

Therein lies the rub. When the goal is to play a 2-1 game, it's quite often that it's the other team that scores two. In fact, 13 of the Capitals' 14 playoff games were decided by one goal. A lineup that includes Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Backstrom and Green scored just 29 goals in those 14 games.

So the Capitals are at a crossroads. Do they stick with Hunter, assuming he wants to return? If he doesn't, do they stay with the defensive close-to-the-chest system with another coach? If they do, do they have the right personnel for it? Ovechkin, in particular, is paid handsomely with the expectation that every year he will be among the league's elite players.

This season, he was not. Even in the playoffs, there were flashes of the Great Eight here and there, but he would disappear for long stretches. Sometimes Hunter would keep him off the ice altogether for extended periods, preferring to go with other matchups.

Saturday night, with the season on the line during the adrenaline rush of a Game 7 -- and with the Capitals trailing most of the game -- Ovechkin managed to put only two shots on goal, the same number as defencemen John Carlson and Roman Hamrlik.

After the game, Ovechkin uncharacteristically sat at his locker for several minutes after the interviews were done, still in his full uniform, staring straight ahead. He has now played seven seasons in the NHL, and he's yet to get past the second round of the playoffs.

The Capitals took the day off Sunday, but questions about Hunter, Ovechkin and everyone else will resume when they reconvene to pack up their belongings for the summer. Hunter was asked about his future immediately after the game and said it wasn't the right time to address such matters, but he made an interesting switch from "we" to "you" when answering another question about the style of play he implemented.

"It's the right way to play, to win," he said. "Next year we'll, you know, you can, you know, start off and that's your goal. To win."

It's also clear that Hunter, if he returns, will have to do a better job of learning how to push the buttons of his players. Ovechkin wasn't the only one who wasn't his top-notch self for Game 7. Except for a few minutes in the second period, the Capitals were clearly outplayed by the Rangers.

"We didn't play our best game, didn't have enough fight, enough grit," defenceman Karl Alzner said. "Didn't battle for pucks enough, had a power play that was awful. It's really too bad that in a game of this magnitude we stunk the bed, pretty much. It's just not good enough for us."

Brad Richards, Brooks Laich (Photo: Scott Levy/NHLI via Getty Images)

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(Photo: Scott Levy/NHLI via Getty Images)
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