When the Caps completed their collapse against Montreal last spring, it went down as one of the more heartbreaking losses in recent (if not franchise) history. Regular season records, phenomenal individual performances, a boatload of talent – the path to the Finals seemed all but set. And then in the blink of an eye it was all over, a 3-1 series lead squandered and hopes dashed. It was a series in which, despite losing that pivotal Game 5, most of us believed right up until the end that the Caps could pull out a win. After all, they only needed one. It just never came.
This year certainly won’t compare to that one. It’s another exit from the playoffs that came too soon, sure, and an exit via an embarrassing sweep no less. But unlike the heartbreak of last year, this spring simply brings a certain numbness, a lingering disbelief that it wasn’t just a dream – that really just happened. We feel numb because after the pain of last year we wanted to believe that something had changed. Numb because it was clear from at least the halfway point of this series that the team was not as focused, because we had time to realize that once again the dream would have to wait.
It’s hard to fathom how this all came to be. To many fans and media it seemed that they’d made the right adjustments, something that was reinforced as recently as two weeks ago as they disposed of the Rangers in just five games, including a statement game to clinch at home. The demons appeared to be exorcised. In that series against New York the Caps’ stars were stars, the role players played their role, the goaltending was elite. Guys seemed to want it, could taste it, had that killer instinct that has been missing for so long.
Nothing could stop them. We started to believe again.
And then seemingly overnight, it was gone. "Stay angry" had somehow morphed into "stay awake" in a matter of days. This team simply stopped playing; they stopped using the system that had gotten them so much success over the last half of the season, stopped feeding off the adversity that was supposed to build character and keep them focused for the long haul. Suddenly instead of a team effort it was a select few, including the captain, who looked hungry for another win – and everyone else seemed content to stand by and watch. They were afraid of making mistakes and then powerless to recover when they ultimately made them.
The why of it all is a mystery. Was it the coaching? Was it the system? Was it the players? Was it the captain? Why did the pieces that seemed to be the final ones suddenly make no difference? What makes a group of professional athletes suddenly unable to show the intensity necessary for postseason hockey? What makes them glare menacingly at reporters and pledge constant vigilance off the ice, only to have them step on the ice and roll over? Why does this team, with all the talent and character in the world, become incapable of finding another level when other teams with varying levels of talent can become playoff juggernauts?
The questions abound, and will for awhile. The how and why, the what the hell and who cares, the who will stay and who will go – both on the bench and behind it. And we have a long summer ahead of us to see how those questions are answered, or if they’re answered at all.
Today, however, in the aftermath of another soul-crushing postseason loss, it just feels…numb.