Caps' familiar ending isn't so familiar

NEW YORK -- Maybe it's because this Washington Capitals team was so different that the now-familiar ending was wrought with even more angst.

Maybe it's because the Capitals became a team that thrived on adversity instead of knuckling under it that Saturday's 2-1 loss to the New York Rangers in the seventh game of their Eastern Conference semifinals was even more painful.

"I thought we did some really good things," forward Brooks Laich said in the somber Caps dressing room at Madison Square Garden.

"The way it ended last year, the way it ended this year, I thought we took more positive steps. I thought we were a lot closer this year than last year. I think we play the right way. We played a very good hockey team, and they were just able to get one more goal."

A year ago, the Capitals were swept in the second round by the Tampa Bay Lightning. If the bottom line is truly the bottom line -- how far did you go in the playoffs? -- the Capitals aren't any further ahead.

But that's not how this playoff year feels.

The seventh-seeded Capitals knocked off the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins, winning Game 7 in Boston in overtime. They then took the top-seeded Rangers to a seventh game. They played 13 one-goal games. They never lost two games in a row.

This team's identity had been all about failing to meet expectations. The Capitals shockingly exceeded them.

Not that there's any solace in that in the moments after a loss like this.

"Not really, no, because those expectations and being an underdog is what everybody else thought of us and not at all what we thought of us," rock-solid defenseman Karl Alzner said.

"It's probably by far the most frustrating loss ever that I've had to face. Nothing against the Rangers, they're a good team, but we never should have lost that series. We're a great team. We had a chance to win."

Alzner is right.

The Capitals will have to live with the Rangers' comeback in Game 5 in which they tied the game with 6.6 seconds left in regulation, then won it early in overtime thanks to a Joel Ward double-minor penalty.

The Caps also lost Game 3 in triple overtime when they had several glorious chances to end it with a goal.

On Saturday, the Capitals played a terrific second period after falling behind 1-0 early in the first period on a goal by Brad Richards -- who else? For long periods of time in the second, the Caps controlled the puck in the Rangers' zone, but New York netminder Henrik Lundqvist was a wall, poke checking away an Alexander Semin effort and somehow getting a blocker on a Mike Knuble shot at the side of the goal.

"It's very hard. It's hard to swallow because everyone came together in this room," said Matt Hendricks, who emerged as a valuable checking forward this spring. "From our top player Ovi all the way down to the guys that aren't in the locker room, that aren't in the lineup, everyone was pulling on that rope together."

"It's a tough loss tonight. It's tough to say that the season's over, because this group really worked hard."

For all the goodwill that hung around the Capitals this spring, another season without a Cup will nonetheless bring another offseason with significant questions.

The Capitals' identity as a hardworking, grind-it-out team was forged by head coach Dale Hunter, who took over after Bruce Boudreau was fired in late November. But the widespread expectation is that Hunter will return to his junior hockey empire in London, Ontario.

If that's the case, does GM George McPhee try to find a coach who can carry on what Hunter started? Perhaps a guy like Michel Therrien, who turned a soft Pittsburgh team into a Cup contender.

Hunter would not discuss his future on Saturday.

"There is a lot of character in that room," Hunter said. "Character is a big word, and it means a lot. You see how we play and the sacrifices you have to make. In that room there, they did it. They played the type of hockey you have to play to win."

One assumes that Semin has played his last game as a Capital and perhaps his last game as an NHLer. Given his tepid performance in Game 7, a game that featured a plethora of ill-conceived passes and soft plays, it's hard to imagine other NHL GMs would pay him the kind of money it's expected he would command in the Kontinental Hockey League.

Alex Ovechkin did not have a strong Game 7, and the issues of his dwindling ice time in the playoffs will need to be addressed in the offseason. Was this spring a crossing of the Rubicon for Ovechkin where he becomes a better two-way player and, as a result, a better leader? Can he thrive in that kind of system, or will he constantly chafe and ultimately become unhappy? That's never a good dynamic for the face of the franchise.

"Yeah, it's terrible feeling now," Ovechkin said. "All I can say, we do our best, and it's probably best team I played. You know, group of guys and atmosphere, everybody was -- it's unbelievable to play, and I hope everybody gonna stay here 'til next year. It's hard."

Finally, did the play of rookie netminder Braden Holtby this spring -- a 1.95 GAA and .935 save percentage -- herald the arrival of a franchise netminder the likes of which the Caps have not seen since Olie Kolzig was in his prime?

If Holtby can become that player, perhaps what we saw from the Capitals this spring wasn't an aberration but the start of something significant and meaningful for the team's future.