An all-too-familiar scene played out deep within the bowels of Madison Square Garden Saturday. Just moments after a 2-1 loss to the New York Rangers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, the Washington Capitals’ locker room was despondent as they tried to wrap their heads around yet another second-round postseason exit, their third in four years.
Alex Ovechkin, strands of gray hair mixed into his black mane, answered questions regarding what could have been before slumping into his stall, still in full uniform. Nicklas Backstrom, demure as usual, quietly attempted to explain the Caps’ shortcomings. Brooks Laich folded his arms across his chest, taking deep breaths before each carefully-crafted response.
Meanwhile, across the locker room, Karl Alzner held court with reporters, expressing his disappointment with how the season ended.
“I’m gonna view it as an underachieved season, in my opinion,” he said. “I know a lot of people don’t feel the same way. 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. I don’t think we made it to what our expectations were as a team.”
On the surface, Saturday’s loss felt no different than last season’s sweep at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Montreal Canadiens’ upset victory in 2010 or the Pittsburgh Penguins’ blowout Game 7 victory in 2009. Yet, while the Caps, originally Stanley Cup favorites, failed to live up to those expectations as Alzner mentioned, they proved something else.
For the first time, Washington battled through adversity instead of buckling under it. The Caps overcame a coaching change, a complete overhaul of their style of play and several bouts of inconsistency and injury just to qualify for the postseason. Once there, things gelled; the Caps were never out of any of their 14 postseason games, setting NHL records in the process. They disposed of the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins before taking the top-seeded Rangers to the absolute limit.
As opposed to the aforementioned season-ending losses, from which nothing could be salvaged, Saturday’s loss was simply a speed bump on the road to continued growth. Evolution takes time.
Never has a team underachieved and overachieved in the same season. And Washington is stronger for it.
“I thought we did some really good things,” Laich said. “I thought the way it ended last year and 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.”
As equipment bags were packed and nameplates were taken off lockers for the final time, the reality of another complete, yet incomplete season finally set in. This time, however, things felt slightly different.
“Yeah, it’s terrible feeling now,” Ovechkin said. “All I can say, we do our best and it’s probably best team I played [on]. You know, group of guys and atmosphere, everybody was — it’s unbelievable to play and I hope everybody gonna stay here until next year.”
For once, it seems as if though the more things stay the same, the more they actually change.