It's been a little over 24 hours now since the Tampa Bay Lightning eliminated the Washington Capitals from the Stanley Cup playoffs, finishing the four-game sweep in less-than-dramatic style Wednesday night. I haven't written anything since the game re-cap because I was still kind of raw from the whole experience and wanted a little time to reflect.
The frustration of seeing things unfold, in the road arena, with the outcome slowly becoming evident was almost too much. Yes, I was in the press box, and I've become good at compartmentalizing things when I sit up there, but I'm still a fan at heart. I have been since the second game in this franchise's history.
The emotional, hushed tones in the locker room after the game. Bruce Boudreau defending his players in his post-game remarks. All knowing that the same team that couldn't find the answers against Tampa would not be back next season to try again. It's tough sometimes. I don't do this because I'm looking for a job. I do this because I love the game and love the team and as much as I try to pretend that I'm a journalist, it still sucks to lose.
We didn't make it to "clean out" day today since we were still traveling. It never occurred to me when I hastily made our arrangements that there wouldn't be a Game Five. I didn't think that there would be a big rush to get back. Like most everyone else, I watched my twitter account for the quotes trickling out of Kettler, as details of injury after injury could finally be revealed. Some I was aware of, others not.
I was surprised at the amount of folks in my feed that thought the Caps were revealing these injuries in some sort of elaborate excuse-making exercise. I was glad that there were others that gently explained to those that it's a necessary evil for teams to "hide" injuries during the playoffs, lest the players become targets.
For most fans, they want to see changes next season. Changes in the players, the coaches, maybe even the general manager. There will of course be new players, there always are. There's really no chance the Caps can afford to keep all the free agents they have on the roster.
Jason Arnott, Brooks Laich, Scott Hannan, Karl Alzner, Semyon Varlamov -- because of their experience or stature those guys are going to cost some real money. Others, like Matt Bradley, Boyd Gordon and Marco Sturm will be more reasonable. The question General Manager George McPhee has to ask about each of these players is where do they fit in to what he's trying to build, and in some cases, can he find a player to do the same job cheaper?
McPhee said some interesting things at the media availability today, which he usually does when he chooses to speak with the media. He was already working on next season, even while his team was being eliminated from the playoffs. “In my own mind, I know, and I could see it during the series and all through the playoffs what I want to do for next season, and it's crazy, even during games, I'm writing down lineups for next year based on the way things are going, the way people are playing and what we have in our organization.”
We'll have plenty of time in the coming weeks to evaluate, discuss and debate the merits of each of these impending free agents and their value to the system, but suffice to say, GMGM is going to have a long off-season.
One change I don't think needs to be made is at coach, and McPhee apparently agrees with me, as he indicated that he "expects" to have Bruce Boudreau behind the bench again next season. It's true that Boudreau has yet to lead this team to the Cup, but he's an excellent coach, a passionate "hockey guy", and is dedicated to the organization. Trust me, no one wants to win this thing more than he does.
He saw a problem this season and took steps to solve it, changing his long-held philosophy and transformed a high-flying offensive attack, one that far and away led the league in scoring the previous season, into a team that was fourth in the league in goals against and second on the penalty kill. It was a remarkable coaching feat, whether you agree or not it needed to be done.
This was a roller coaster of a season, with some dramatically emotional moments -- both in triumph and in defeat. We lived through the losing streak, the drama of 24/7, New Year's Eve and the Winter Classic, the elation of eliminating the Rangers, and the soul-crushing sweep to a division foe. We said goodbye to a few old friends, and welcomed new ones with open arms.
The marathon of another year of Washington Capitals hockey is over. Just like the very first one in 1974 and every single season since, still without sipping from the sport's Holy Grail. I've been there for each and every last game and the disappointment never changes. Sometimes you see it coming from farther away and can prepare for it a little better. Sometimes, like getting swept in a four-game series that every so-called expert picks your team to win, it comes on too quickly and it slaps you in the face and kicks you in the ass.
Our solice is that in a few short months, it all starts over again. Some of the faces will change. Veterans will be phased out, rookies will be eased in to new roles. The core of this team gets one year closer to their athletic peak. As disappointing as the finish was with all the expectations we all placed on this team, there is one truth that Caps fans need to remember: There is a tremendous amount of young talent on this team, and throughout the organization.
Hockey is hard. If it were easy, everyone would win a Cup. Twenty-nine teams lose every year. Be disappointed, but keep the faith. Next season will come sooner than you think.
One final note: Thank you for reading. Thank you for following us on Twitter and Facebook. Thank you for making our words and pictures part of your experience of Washington Capitals hockey. It's endlessly satisfying, gratifying and humbling to know that people are interested in our opinion and craft -- and continue to be after experiencing it the first time.
Thank you to all the regular media that put up with an amateur like me trying to squeeze my recorder into the scrum just like they are.
Thank you to our independent media brothers and sisters, for your excellence and dedication make us work harder and strive to be better every time we set out to post something.
And thank you to the Capitals organization -- from Ted Leonsis to George McPhee to Bruce Boudreau and all the players to Nate Ewell, Sergey Kocharov and the rest of the media relations staff -- for recognizing and understanding that independent voices are essential to critical thought and discourse, and for treating us like professionals.