Commentary

Even in defeat, Capitals should remember how far they've come

Updated: April 23, 2008, 12:44 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

WASHINGTON -- This is hardly the place for perspective.

In a dressing room so quiet that all you could hear were the sounds of portable fans and the murmurs of the brokenhearted, it's hard to see the whole picture, where a team was and how far it came.

No, for the Washington Capitals, a team that charged from last overall at Thanksgiving to the Southeast Division title, that came back from a 3-1 series deficit to force a seventh game against the Philadelphia Flyers, all that mattered was Joffrey Lupul's winning goal 6:06 into extra time.

[+] EnlargeCapitals
Len Redkoles/Getty ImagesAlex Ovechkin and the Capitals came back from a 6-14-1 start and a 14th-place spot in the East at midseason to earn a playoff berth.

"They played their hearts out," Washington coach Bruce Boudreau said after the game. "They laid it on the line like you knew they would. That's probably why they're so sad."

What did Boudreau say to his boys afterward, before reporters swarmed in to record the Caps' disappointment?

"I just told them that they'd given me the greatest year of my life and I thanked them," he said. "We'll talk tomorrow. They don't want to hear too much and I couldn't say too much at that point."

When Boudreau took over Thanksgiving weekend for the dispatched Glen Hanlon, the Caps were a team adrift. But Boudreau saw beyond their record to their possibilities. And he told them. At least once a week, he told them he thought they could take a run at the Stanley Cup.

And when they beat the Flyers 4-2 on Monday night in Philadelphia to force Game 7 back home … heck, it all seemed possible.

But credit the Philadelphia Flyers and determined netminder Martin Biron, who turned aside 39 of 41 shots to advance to the second round a season after they were dead last in the NHL.

"I guess [Biron] answered those questions about playing back-to-back," Philadelphia coach John Stevens said.

The Flyers withstood a clutch of glorious chances by the Caps, especially in the third period, when they were outshot 16-5. They survived, despite blowing a two-minute 5-on-3 power play late in the first period. Then, when Tom Poti was whistled for tripping at 4:15 of overtime, the Flyers closed the deal.

The win denied the Caps a dramatic series comeback and the hockey world of a matchup between Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin. Doubt if the Flyers mind too much.

Still, for a franchise that has had so little going for it over the past decade, this was a season of renaissance in Washington.

During training camp, owner Ted Leonsis proclaimed the rebuild was over, that the Caps had arrived. But early in the season, Washington looked like an abandoned tenement, never mind a team built for the postseason.

When Boudreau took the reins of the team, it began playing hair-on-fire hockey -- chasing down opponents, shooting from everywhere on the ice and winning hockey games. Ovechkin caught fire, too, and soared to the top of the NHL scoring charts, winning both the Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy for goals and the Art Ross Trophy for most points. And unless we miss our guess, he is a shoo-in to win the Hart Trophy as the NHL's MVP.

But this wasn't a one-man show, even though Ovechkin scored again Tuesday night for his third goal in two games.

Nicklas Backstrom blossomed as the season progressed. Alexander Semin meshed with the slick Swedish center to give the Caps two dynamic offensive units. Defenseman Mike Green emerged as the closest thing this NHL has to a young Paul Coffey with his blazing speed and delicate hands.

General manager George McPhee shrewdly acquired netminder Cristobal Huet, who took over for Olaf Kolzig in net and provided much-needed consistency after the trade deadline. Sergei Fedorov, also acquired at the deadline, was a calming influence on the power play and killing penalties. Matt Cooke was an added piece of gristle to a team that was surprisingly difficult to play against.

"Obviously we're happy about what we've done, but we feel we could have gone a lot farther than this," said Matt Bradley, who signed as a free agent after the lockout. "From where we came from, it's obviously a positive. We stuck together as a team and all that kind of thing. But we could have done more."

Poti had nine seconds left in his penalty when Lupul tucked home the rebound of a Kimmo Timonen shot. Poti, a major offseason free-agent acquisition lured away from the New York Islanders, believed he got all puck and that R.J. Umberger stepped on his stick on the penalty call in question. And there were complaints that the Flyers' second goal shouldn't have counted because Huet was knocked out of the net when Shaone Morrisonn and Patrick Thoresen crashed into him.

Regardless, the Caps had plenty of opportunities to put this one away in regulation. They didn't, and so they were forced to watch, slumped over at their bench, as the Flyers celebrated in the packed Verizon Center.

"I just saw how they celebrate. What can I say?" Ovechkin said.

Later, after the teams filed through the traditional end-of-series handshake that makes the NHL playoffs so different than any other sporting event, Ovechkin turned and clapped his gloves together in acknowledgement of the crowd.

When fans support you as these fans have, and you lose, "You just want to say hi to them and thanks," Ovechkin said.

Just outside the Caps' dressing room, Leonsis, clad in a red Caps jersey, talked about the strides this team has made on the ice and the connection it has made with the fans off it. The Caps have already sold 3,000 season-ticket packages for the 2008-09 campaign, which will be the most successful in terms of revenue. But on a night like Tuesday night, the money end of it seems almost inconsequential.

"I sure would have liked to win tonight. It's pretty painful," Leonsis said.

Still, as it turned out, Leonsis was right back in September. This isn't a team that is rebuilding, but rather building. To what? Who knows? But there is something mindful of the Pittsburgh Penguins and how they have quickly learned what it takes to win in the playoffs. Perhaps, more importantly, the fans in this oft-maligned NHL market seem to have understood what was happening here, too.

Leonsis has likened it to the awakening of a giant.

"If there were 10 Flyers fans in the building [Tuesday night], I would have been surprised," he said. "This is a young, beautiful team. We can keep this team together."

Fans left the Verizon Center disappointed -- that part isn't new. What is new is they left disappointed in the outcome -- not the team, not the team's future.

"They weren't disappointed in Caps hockey," Leonsis said.

Maybe this was the place to find perspective after all.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.

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