If we are of mixed emotions about the end of this hockey season — proud and uplifted by a Capitals team of unlikely cohesion and stunning sacrifice, but also exasperated by the frustration of banishment earlier than forecast, again — that’s as it should be. This Capitals team engineered a vibrant unity of our region in short order, gelling dramatically under their coach and playing precisely the brand of hockey the NHL postseason prescribes. On a near nightly basis they managed to create riveting drama, and a region none too accustomed to that, with the stakes high, fell in love with it.
This wasn’t just about a hockey team getting it together at the right time, playing for one another bravely and selflessly. This seemed fresh and authentic, a stirring streak of success in short order, taking down the defending champs and pushing the East’s no. 1 seed to the brink. Along the way a long elusive identity was forged, cultivated in work ethic, commitment, and fearlessness. It seemed something to build upon, durably.
And then there was Braden Holtby. He seemed part Cam Ward (’06), part Ken Dryden ( ’71), part his very own self. He thrilled us by staring down contemporary netminding giants. He thrilled us with his precocious resiliency. He thrilled us with his swagger. He staked a serious claim to being the franchise netminder the Capitals have searched for since Olie Kolzig departed.
And then there was Dale Hunter, the Legend returned in-season merely to play the role of Savior. Harshly, rashly judged in his early going here, this morning he appears indispensable to a Capitals organization going forward.
But the Capitals this spring also reminded us of . . . the Capitals — uniquely qualified to steal defeat from the jaws of victory.
Little things, very, very little things, often decide a playoff series between evenly matched teams. And so a Capitals team with series-stealing visions immediately before it with mere seconds remaining in game 5 saw beautiful bliss swiftly replaced by irrevocable brutality as Joel Ward’s hockey stick reversed the course of prosperity. My verdict on the infraction, aided by almost 40 years of suffering with this franchise, was that it was unforgivable. At 11:00 Saturday evening I was of little better charity of spirit. An organization congenitally, and ever, on the outside looking in on prosperity cannot so shoot itself in the skate boot, not against an elite team.
If a month ago you had been told that the Caps could navigate the Bruins and the Rangers and be left standing in hockey’s final four with merely the Devils (6 seed), Coyotes (nominal 3 seed), and Kings (8 seed), how would you have reacted?
Again, be proud of the special sacrifice and extraordinary effort exhibited by this edition of the Capitals, but acknowledge, too, what ultimately was lost in those final infuriating 60 seconds within Madison Square Garden during last Monday night’s game 5. There never should have been a game 7.
We could follow this team another 15 or 20 years and not see such a Red Sea of Prosperity — the round 1 falling of the Wings, the Pens, the defending champions, among other high-powered others — rival this spring’s. As a lifer following this club, I look at this spring’s vanquishing and know it will stick with me with savage sourness, until — if — redemption at last arrives.
And so this morning we are left with scores of questions casting our gaze forward.
- With the existing CBA set to expire, will there even be hockey next season?
- Can we at last secure a second-line center? And what do you do with Alexander Semin?
- Is it really to be the case that the world’s best hockey player not yet in the NHL, Evgeny Kuznetsov, won’t see a Capitals sweater for at least two more hockey seasons?
- Whither Ovi? Brilliant in game 6, when his team needed him terribly, Captain Alexander Ovechkin was the inverse of efficiency and impact in game 7. Never before had I seen him compete in a big game with less interest in having the puck on his stick. Blind drop pass after blind drop pass, instant and casual puck distribution long before drawing Rangers defenders to him, Ovi genuinely didn’t seem to want the puck on his stick Saturday night. I find that gravely troubling.
- Hunter, here or back there? If he goes, who in the hell replaces him?
- Missing in Action: Marcus Johansson. MJ90 was useless in the Rangers series, and only marginally better against the Bs. I ask anew: Just why didn’t the Capitals develop him as they have all of their other non-lottery selected talents? I genuinely worry that in rushing him into the NHL as they did the Caps have stunted his development.
- Leadership — it’s coming from everywhere but where it’s formally expected to. Is this an area to be addressed by management in the offseason, or will we again sacrifice this sport’s time-honored heritage with its captaincy in a promulgation of an ill-advised marketing campaign?
- The Capitals aren’t playing 82 games next regular season as they did this April and May. There aren’t enough trainer’s tables and hospital wards in the region to accommodate it. So assuming Hunter’s back, what system will the coach deploy to build on the great evolution he engineered for this organization?
- And most interestingly: Just how much more like Dale Hunter will the 2012-13 Capitals roster look?