WASHINGTON - APRIL 28: Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals salutes the fans following a 2-1 defeat at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Verizon Center on April 28, 2010 in Washington, DC. The Canadiens defeated the Capitals 2-1. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Alfred Lord Tennyson famously said, "'Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all."
Well…I’m guessing ol’ Alfie wasn’t a Caps fan. Because when summer starts in April and stretched ahead of you are months of questioning what could have been, when yet another year of high expectations ends with a resounding thud, when heartbreak again comes to call in DC…never loving at all sounds pretty good sometimes.
And yet the reality is most of us would, in the end, agree with Tennyson – to love this team and have them break our hearts over and over again is better than never having loved them at all. In fact, it’s almost (I stress, almost) part of their charm. The eternal underdogs, destined to fail despite great expectations…until the one time they don’t. That day is coming, it has to be, and that’s what keeps us coming back.
So in the wake of what is probably the most heart-wrenching playoff failure in franchise history (which is saying something), it’s important to remember why we choose to love this team. There will be plenty of time to dissect what happened here – and believe me, plenty of scalpels (and some hatchets) are poised and ready to do just that – but there is always some good to be taken with the bad.
To use another worn out cliche, the darkest hour is indeed just before the dawn:
- Another year of Mike Knuble and Jason Chimera - The two veterans brought experience, grit and leadership to a locker room that was at times lacking in all three. The difference they made in the lineup was noticeable; the first line became more terrifying, the third/fourth lines became faster. And maybe another year of that is what this team needs – in particular, imagine a full season with someone like Chimera on the roster. It's a nice thought, isn't it?
- A regular season for the ages - Sure, regular season means [Franceschetti] when the ultimate goal is and always will be the Cup; but when it’s all you have left, it’s worth it to reflect back on just how incredible this season was. The franchise records, the individual achievements, the great performances – all of these things may have ultimately set us up for greater heartache because of the expectations attached, but still…what a year.
- Super Swede - There may be no better Caps' story this year than that of Nicklas Backstrom and his continued evolution into a bona fide superstar. The question around Backstrom has always been whether his numbers are inflated by playing alongside Alex Ovechkin, whether Ovechkin actually makes him look better. Turns out the answer may be that it’s the other way around. At the very least the two have created magic together; it’s not just anyone who can skate with #8, and Backstrom makes it look easy. Sure, with every goal, every assist, every play in which his strength with and without the puck became clear, Caps fans could hear the cash register ringing – but if they can get this deal done he’ll be worth every penny.
- A new era on the blue line - Together Mike Green and Jeff Schultz formed a dominant pairing on the blue line throughout the regular season. And in Game 7, we got a glimpse of the next potentially great D pair in John Carlson and Karl Alzner. All four have made mistakes, the kind of mistakes that come with youth and fade with experience, but the fact remains that the future of the Caps’ defense is in good, capable hands. And we’ll get to see it full time next year, you can count on that.
- The emergence of Eric Fehr - Bruce Boudreau famously called out some of his players for being "passengers" after Game 5, and there were certainly some passengers on this team through the playoffs; Eric Fehr was not one of them, nor was he in the regular season. He was remarkably efficient in limited (thanks, Bruce) ice time, set career numbers for himself during the season and was easily one of the Caps’ better players through the Montreal series. All of this after undergoing double shoulder surgery over the summer, no less. He could be a casualty of the salary cap this summer should another team target him with an offer sheet. They'd be smart to; here’s hoping McPhee is smarter.
- Life lessons learned - We said it last year. We said it the year before. And yet it still rings true today – this team is still young, still growing and still learning how to win. This was the first year in which they entered the playoffs with the pressure of being a Cup favorite, with the expectations of a League and the hopes of a city on their shoulders. That’s not always an easy place to be, something the San Jose Sharks could probably attest to, and having had this experience – and learning from it – will be key to trying again next year. If it’s the hockey version of "that which does not kill us makes us stronger", we’re growing stronger by the year.
Right now the silver lining looks tarnished and faded, overshadowed by the loss last night that will surely leave a bitter taste in our mouths for a long time to come. But it's there - what was good is still good, and the closer we get to next season the brighter that silver lining will be.
Keep the faith.