TAMPA, Fla. -- As we watched the Washington Capitals shake hands at center ice of the St. Pete Times Forum, heads bowed, shoulders drooping, we were struck by one thought: what a waste.
In the wake of a 5-3 loss and series sweep Wednesday night by the suddenly formidable Tampa Bay Lightning, a game in which the Caps never led and never really seemed in a position to actually win, we wondered how big a dynamite case owner Ted Leonsis will use this summer to follow up his team's latest playoff pratfall.
"They just got the upper hand on us all the time. It's very frustrating," Washington veteran forward Mike Knuble said. "I don't think any of us saw this coming down, happening like it did. Probably the last thing that was in our mind. It's an emotional 24 hours because you have a chance to really even the series and then all of a sudden you're swept, so it's obviously very hard to take as a player."
When you have such high hopes and are banished from the tournament so curtly, it's amazing how quickly thoughts turn from the ice to the drawing board.
A year ago, Leonsis showed remarkable restraint after the Caps followed a record-breaking regular season by blowing a 3-1 series lead against Montreal en route to a first-round exit.
Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau returned for another campaign and the team actually got younger, and more responsibilities were handed over to some of those promising young players such as Karl Alzner, John Carlson, Marcus Johansson and Michal Neuvirth.
Although there were rumors his job was in jeopardy midway through this season when the team went on an eight-game winless slide, some of which was captured by the HBO documentary series "24/7," Boudreau coached his brains out down the stretch. The team implemented a simpler, more defensive style of play that saw the Caps earn the top seed in the Eastern Conference for the second straight season.
After beating the New York Rangers in five games in the first round, the Caps had folks wondering whether this wasn't the first step on their long-awaited Cup run.
It wasn't. Not even close.
"It's very disappointing, obviously. The season's over," said forward Brooks Laich, who has grown up in the Caps' system. "We don't measure ourselves by where we finish in the regular season or anything like that. You measure yourself by the ultimate goal. When you don't achieve it, it's tough to take and tough to accept that you're not quite there yet."
It might not be fair, but it will be a shock if the first person thrown over the side after this letdown isn't Boudreau. His has been a great story. He was a minor league sniper who became a minor league coaching institution until GM George McPhee and the Caps gave him a chance at the big leagues at Thanksgiving of the 2007-08 season.
Gregarious and passionate about the game, Boudreau deserved better than this. He remade this team into a solid defensive squad, but since he took over, his clubs have lost Game 7s against Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Montreal; have never advanced past the second round; and have never been able to find the level of play they needed when it mattered most. This spring, Boudreau deserved better from a team that seems to lack the "heart" DNA that all championship teams possess.
"There's not really much to say. They're down in the dumps. I'm down in the dumps," Boudreau said. "I just told them I was proud of them for the way they worked all year and that they never quit right until the end. That's all a coach can ask -- you don't quit and you just keep plugging through. We thought we had a good chance to win, and we just didn't get it done."
Will someone else have better luck in coaxing more from one of the most talented groups in hockey?
It seems inevitable someone will get that chance; if it comes to that, we expect Boudreau will get another chance to prove that sometimes all the coaching in the world can't save a team from what it is -- or, in this case, isn't.
Laich, for one, was adamant this loss shouldn't fall at Boudreau's feet.
"That doesn't fall on Bruce. We're the guys that play the game. I think Bruce, Dean [Evason] and Bob [Woods], I think we have a dream team of coaches. I think we're privileged to play for these guys. I think we're lucky to play for these guys," Laich said. "I've said it before; any criticism directed toward them is totally unjust. They put the game plan together; it's up to the players to execute it. I can't say enough about our coaching staff."
Although he didn't specifically address the coaching, Knuble also said he thinks it would be a knee-jerk reaction to make wholesale changes.
"I'm glad I don't have to make that decision. As a player, that's a knee-jerk reaction," Knuble said. "George isn't like that. Will there be changes? Of course, of course there are going to be. And who knows what it's going to be and probably rightfully so."
If it's not the coaching, then, what is to be done with a talented core that seems incapable of escaping its own dark playoff past year after year?
• The Caps signed Alexander Semin to a one-year extension this season, although his lackadaisical play in this series and for most of the playoffs bordered on the comical.
• Nicklas Backstrom, in the first year of a 10-year contract extension, was ghastly. He failed to register a point in Game 4 and had just two assists in nine playoff games. He has, early in his career, established himself as a player who cannot answer the bell in pressure situations.
"I take full responsibility for not being that good," Backstrom said. "I wasn't as good as I should be. I think it feels like I've been working hard every game, but around the net, it wasn't just there. I don't know what happened. But it was so [expletive] frustrating."
• Jason Arnott, brought in at the trade deadline for veteran leadership, had two assists in Game 4 but was a non-factor in this series and undoubtedly will be gone (as will Marco Sturm, who did score his first goal of the playoffs in Game 4).
• Defenseman Mike Green, twice nominated for the Norris trophy mostly for his offensive contributions, missed Game 4 with an injury, but he did not play particularly well in this series after a strong start to the playoffs, further reinforcing that he, too, is not built for the playoffs.
Which brings us to the captain, Alex Ovechkin.
Ovechkin had 10 points this postseason and continued to be a physical presence, and looked dangerous at times in Game 4. Boudreau said he thought Ovechkin was the team's best player. Yet, this playoff failure will merely reinforce the theory that he is, simply put, not a winner.
Harsh? Maybe. And we understand it takes players time to grow into roles. Steve Yzerman, the rookie GM in Tampa Bay who has done such a brilliant job in reconstructing the Lightning, faced the same kind of criticism early in his career with the Detroit Red Wings.
After the Caps had taken a 2-0 series lead against Pittsburgh in the second round in 2009, we wrote how we were witnessing the shift of power in the conference, that the Caps had overtaken Sidney Crosby and the Penguins. Oops. Not quite.
The Caps lost four of the next five games and were eliminated. That was followed by the Habs debacle last postseason and being swept by the Lightning.
"I don't think we weren't hungry. We were hungry. We just didn't win," Ovechkin said Wednesday night. "We want to win. They want to win. Somebody has to lose. We are losing, and I don't know what to say right now."
Asked whether this team was missing something, Ovechkin insisted he remains positive about the Caps' future.
"I don't know. I don't think we miss something," he said. "We have unbelievable team, great locker room, great atmosphere, but we just missed one opportunity to win one game and didn't bounce back. Again, it happened and we're going to see what is going to happen."
At some point, perhaps, Ovechkin can erase the stain of the failures on big hockey stages early in his career and become Yzerman-like, leading this team to the promised land that has thus far eluded it.
But as we watched Ovechkin trudge out of the Caps' dressing room after a fourth straight disappointing postseason finish, it was hard to think of anything other than what a waste.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.