As Adam Oates wrapped up his first season as an NHL head coach and the Caps wrapped up yet another disappointingly early playoff exit, the ever optimistic Oates left his players with one parting message: remember Boston.
Much was made last season of the Capitals' Game 7 defeat of the Bruins in overtime fashion at TD Garden, and deservedly so. The Caps, who'd struggled to even make the postseason as a seventh seed, beat the defending Stanley Cup champions on their ice. It was an unforgettable moment for a team that, for the first time in five years, failed to win its division and actually had to battle for a playoff spot.
And just as the Caps' quest for the Cup has seen its fair share of disappointment, Oates made sure to remind his players, before they took off for the summer, that no journey to the Finals comes easily.
"I used Boston as an example to them: 'They won the cup two years ago, last year you guys upset them,'" Oates explained. "The year before they were up 3-0 against Philly and blew it. The year before that they were one of the best seeds and kind of didn't get it done, yet they hadn't changed anything. They're still the same team going on the same page. That's why I think that you gotta stay with it, everyone try and keep getting better and one day it will just happen. You'll grow as an organization and it'll happen."
It's a positive parting message Oates' players took to heart on Wednesday.
"They'd been a good team for a long time and they ended up winning," Mike Green said of the 2010-11 Bruins. "With us I think with the consistency level of being a good team, you're gonna win. It's just a matter of getting the right bounces at the right time and things going your way and every team knows that that's won."
Just two days after his team's third failed attempt to move beyond the first round in six consecutive playoff appearances, Brooks Laich colorfully shared his feelings on the situation: "These days suck. There's no way to polish a turd."
Brooks then added that he's already looking ahead to the promise of a full season with what he believes is a Stanley Cup contender.
"We know the coaching staff, the structure that we're gonna play, the guys that we have in place: the future is very bright. You get sick and tired of saying that, trust me, I've been here long enough. People say you have a good team but I want to win right now. It's difficult to win, but our future and moving forward -it's difficult to say right now because we just got shellacked 5-0- but moving forward we have a very good chance to win and compete for the Stanley Cup."
A "learning experience". It's become a rote explanation this time of year as the Caps meet with the media one last time before packing up and shipping off to summer homes where they'll watch their peers contend for a title hung so painfully out of reach. But it's one that admittedly holds some truth, as in Oates' Boston example.
"The more times you get punted in the playoffs the more mad you get and hopefully the better you play next year," said Karl Alzner, who has been with the club since the failed 2010 campaign that saw the Presidents' Trophy winners bounced in a first round Game 7 loss at home.
"You can never let a win go to your head or a loss go to your heart," said Laich. "It's tough to swallow but the only option is to move forward. That is the only way to go."
Four different coaches have led the Caps to their six recent playoff appearances using four different systems and the same core group of players. Oates believes that this group has what it takes -as is- to win a cup. And as he insisted, there's no exact formula to creating a championship team.
"I think [the team] is very close. It's hard to put your finger on it. You look at Saint Louis. They added those pieces at the end and they lost first round so who knows what they're thinking. Last year I got to the Finals with a team that nobody expected. It can happen. There's no magic formula. You just gotta keep staying with it and keep trying to improve and then one day, sooner or later, it'll happen. I think it's very close.
"One of the things that I thought about was that as a player I never got it done. I played a long time and I lost Game 7 of the Finals. You wanna talk about going a long way and not getting it done, that was pretty far. That flight home was incredible, as you can imagine. You go two whole months and then Game 7. Vancouver went through it a couple years ago, right? It's really tough. Then you think about, you know I played with Ray Bourque, who plays for 21 years in Boston and didn't get it done then goes to Colorado and they win a cup without Peter Forsberg in the lineup. Their best player's not in the lineup, so what is winning? Like does that ring really matter to Ray when he won when he had a stacked team?"
"You can self destruct and blow yourself up if you want or you can choose to move forward and still try to accomplish something," said Laich. "We have great young hockey players entering the prime of their careers. The window hasn't closed. We aren't one year away from 'this is our last shot.' Mike Green is getting better. Alex Ovechkin, you saw a resurgence from him. Nicky Backstrom. We've got some new guys coming in that are getting better. The goaltending is getting better each year. Those guys are starting to be stars in the league. There's bright days ahead for this organization and I think as players we're excited to be part of that."