When the hockey season started back at the beginning of October, a check of the relative merits of the teams in the Patrick Division put the Washington Capitals fourth in the talent department behind New York, Pittsburgh and New Jersey.
Consequently, the Caps not only finished second in the NHL's toughest division, but their 45-27-8 record and 98 points earned them the runner-up position among the league's 22 teams.
For the first time in a long time, it was a truly exciting team to watch, goals arriving in wholesale bunches with a majority of them coming from players on the way up. Over the course of 80 games, obviously the blend of youth and experience was ideal.
Coach Terry Murray went so far as to call it "a terrific season." In the very next breath, however, he recognized one of the verities of sport: "You're measured by how you finish."
The Capitals lost a tough game to the Penguins a couple of nights ago. In the great scheme of things, it will not be placed in the perspective of being the latest of 86 playoff games or the 1,526 contests the team has engaged in since 1974.
As is always the case when the Caps depart postseason play, they are accused of choking, spitting the bit out, quitting, going into the tank. When it is all on the line, it is constantly spoken and written, the team is a catastrophe waiting to happen.
Of course, a case can be made for Washington developing a large lump in the throat as the Penguins were winning the last three games, overcoming a 3-1 deficit and going on to engage the Rangers in a best-of-seven series. After all, the Caps seemed dominant over the first four games and they had mid-game leads in Games 5 and 6.
But rare is it when anyone ever gives credit to the teams that rise up and smite the Caps. After losing three of the first four games, the Penguins made a drastic change in their game plan and were sufficiently skilled and patient to pull it off. "They became so good defensively, it's like we began to think it wouldn't last," said Caps goalie Don Beaupre. "Then, when things weren't going right for us, we began to press."
Pittsburgh, remember, is the gang that shoots straight, but regards defense as something to be stressed by the opposition. Until playoff time. "We played hard through the series, but we didn't play smart until the fifth game," noted defenseman Larry Murphy, who plied his trade for six seasons with Washington.
"We usually take a game to adjust," explained Mario Lemieux. "This time, we took a little longer. It took us a while to get the game plan down, to be patient and don't give them any room, especially their defensemen."
When Washington had the puck, it was as if the Pens suddenly inserted their best blueliners and their best checking forwards. They attacked the Caps offense, sending first the center, then the two wingers, then the defensemen. "I don't think they were confused," said Murphy, "our forwards were just able to break them up."
Once broken down, the Caps fell easy prey to counter-attack, a style of play it seems that is perfectly suited to everything the brilliant Lemieux does best.
"Mario is by far the best in the game," noted Murray, matter-of-factly. "When he's out there, he controls things. The puck follows him around the rink. We tried everything we could think of on him."
All to no avail.
In a Game 7 that saw only three minor penalties all night, it appeared the Caps got a huge break when they were put on the power play late in the first period. But soon Mario had the puck and here he came with fellow penalty-killer Ron Francis on a 2-on-3 break. He deked a defender, dropped a pass for his mate to tee up and slash at and immediately took off for where he figured the rebound would be headed.
Sure enough, Francis shot, it ricocheted off Beaupre to the left where Lemieux was waiting to one-time it into the Capitals' net. Later, he set up the winning goal by drawing the defense before laying the puck on Jaromir Jagr's stick for an easy tally.
"I spend so much time on the ice, I can't skate around at 100 miles-an-hour like some other guys do," said Mario. "I try to read the play, then explode with the energy saved up when I get the puck." Obviously, nobody does it better.
So, it was no disgrace to lose to the Penguins, the defending Stanley Cup champs, even after building a handsome lead. They're a team that spurts, as they proved last year when they won the last three games from Minnesota for the Stanley Cup, the last four from Boston for the Wales Conference crown and the last four from Washington for the Patrick Division title.
Too often, though, Capitals expectations are slightly inflated after the team overachieves during the regular season, setting themselves up for the underachieving tag that is invariably hung around their neck in April or May.
"I'm still trying to find out what happened," general manager David Poile said after giving himself a couple of days to absorb the disappointment.
What happened is, Pittsburgh caught fire and a problem Washington has had all season but was able to hide behind its high-scoring offense was exposed: The defense is not only worn out in some respects, it often plays dumb and with unnecessary abandon, which never works during the playoffs. Ask the Penguins.