Capitals left with many questions, few answers First-round defeat sours solid season


How many more years are we going to have to put up with this stuff?

This is the question many Washington Capitals fans must be asking themselves after the team made another early exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The Capitals have been in the playoffs for 10 consecutive years and only once have they made it out of the Patrick Division. The high point came two years ago, when they played the Boston Bruins for the Wales Conference championship, but lost in four ++ games.

This year's first-round loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins ranks as perhaps the lowest point in the team's playoff history.

Washington started the regular season with a rush, led the league early on and stayed near the top all the way. The Capitals finished second overall in the NHL, second in goals scored (330), first in power-play percentage, second in penalty killing and second in home-ice record. The team was healthy all season, losing only left wing Randy Burridge with a knee injury in early March and backup goalie Mike Liut with back spasms at about the same time.

The Capitals, after the 10-day strike, came back strong and appeared primed and ready to make an assault on the Stanley Cup. They began their opening-round series with the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins with a flourish, sprinting to a 3-1 lead in games. At this point the Capitals, as in too many seasons to recall, either went to sleep or forgot what they were doing and allowed the Penguins to rally from near elimination to a berth in the Patrick Division championship round against the New York Rangers.

The Penguins won the final two games at the Capital Centre, where the Capitals were 25-12-3 during the regular season and 2-0 in the first two playoff games -- so much for the home-ice advantage.

Capitals general manager David Poile said yesterday that he was devastated by the loss.

"This is so very disappointing," he said. "I'm still trying to find out what happened. Everybody felt we were the best team when the playoffs began and we played like the best team in the first four games of the series. Then Pittsburgh suddenly became the better team, and we're going to have to find answers to what happened."

Are changes in team personnel imminent?

"No, I wouldn't say that," Poile said. "I want to step back from this for a couple of weeks and not make any moves as to how I feel at this moment. I want to take time to study everything carefully, have meetings with all of our people [coaching staff and scouts] and make a thorough evaluation of the entire season. There are a lot of things to be analyzed. It's something we'll have to tend to during the summer."

Capitals coach Terry Murray was discouraged, too.

"We had a terrific year, but what we did in the playoffs will taint it badly," he said. "I can't fault the players. They were great all season. They had a great work ethic, did whatever was asked of them and always came prepared to play. It's just a shame the season has to end this way."

Will changes be made before next year?

"It's really too early to think about any of that," Murray said. "We'll have to let this sink in, think about next year and then sit down and discuss it. It's something we'll do later on."

Defenseman Al Iafrate said: "We had a great season, but we came up short in the playoffs. Anything else you say is hindsight."

"It's not that our team dominated the rest of the league in the regular season. There were an awful lot of very good teams," said right wing Dino Ciccarelli, the main cog in Washington's success in the first four games of the playoffs. "We played well most of the season, but we had some lapses, just as we did in the playoffs. I don't know what can be done to correct our

problems. That's up to management."

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