Feeling empty, Capitals look for answers STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It was a day of meetings at Piney Orchard Ice Rink in Odenton, as the Washington Capitals and the team's management sorted through the remains of a season that was cut much too short for their liking.

The Capitals had taken a 3-1 lead in their best-of-seven Stanley Cup Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, only to be booted from the playoffs as the Penguins rallied for three straight victories, including 3-0 in Game 7 in Pittsburgh Thursday.

"You feel a little empty the day after," said winger Keith Jones. "Especially when you had gone ahead 3-1 and lose. We really blew it in Game 5. We gave them a second life, and they got stronger. And then, we didn't react to it."

Said Capitals coach Jim Schoenfeld: "We have to sort out the answers to what happened. And I'm not taking myself off the hook, either. I'm the coach. I've got a 3-1 lead. I've got to be able to close that series down. I've got to answer the question: Why weren't we able to hold on?

"The thing that disappoints me most is our inability to execute the system we executed so well all season. That system worked for us against everyone, including the Penguins. We beat them twice just to get into the playoffs."

Any time a team fails to achieve its goals -- and the Caps had a lofty one, the Stanley Cup -- it comesaway feeling it has underachieved.

"There were positives this season," said Jones. "We fought back after the terrible [3-10-5] start. A lot of teams would have just accepted their fate, but we fought to overcome that start. I think that was our biggest achievement.

"But when you lose in the first round like we did, it leaves a sour feeling in the back of your throat, and the positives seem pretty meaningless."

After meeting with general manager David Poile, neither Schoenfeld nor Poile was willing to get specific about changes.

"It is very hard to get a handle on this season," Poile said. "We finished strong last season and had the best record in preseason training camp. Then came the lockout, a 3-10-5 start and there weren't many people on our bandwagon. Then we scrape and claw to make the playoffs, and now, less than 24 hours after we're knocked out of the playoffs, everything is very emotional.

"I want to talk to the players and the coaches and see where we are and where we're headed."

There were obvious disappointments this season. More goal production was expected from Joe Juneau (five goals, 38 assists), Dimitri Khristich (12 goals, 14 assists) and Rob Pearson, who was acquired for Mike Ridley in a trade last summer.

The Caps had hoped Pearson, who had six assists and no goals until netting one in the playoffs, would regain a scoring touch he had briefly exhibited in 1992-93, when he scored 23 goals for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

There was also the toll the lockout took on forward Pat Peake, who was the Caps' hottest scorer in the preseason but never regained his touch after suffering a broken ankle and a bout of mononucleosis.

"Some players this season have built up a pretty good playing reserve where they've earned the benefit of the doubt," said Schoenfeld, who would not name names.

"And there are a couple who are making it harder to give the benefit of the doubt. But we haven't written anyone off yet."

And there were positives, which are sometimes hard to see the day after the final loss of the season:

* The development of two rookie goaltenders -- Jim Carey, who finished with a 2.13 goals-against average, and Olie Kolzig, who had a 2.44.

* The development of three other rookies -- defensemen Ken Klee and Sergei Gonchar and right wing Martin Gendron.

* The emergence of Steve Konowalchuk (11 goals, 14 assists) and Jones (14 goals, six assists) as dependable, hard-working and productive players.

* The development of Peter Bondra into the NHL's leading goal-scorer in his fifth NHL season. Bondra had 34 goals and nine assists in 47 games, which tied Juneau for the team's scoring lead.

"This year, we have more room for improvement with the group of players we have," said Schoenfeld. "I think we're a team on the way up. This was a season of transition. We didn't go as far in the playoffs, but I think we may have taken a step back to take two forward."

THE CAPS' PLAYOFF COLLAPSES

Year .. Opponent ....... Round .. Caps' lead .. Series result

1985 .. N.Y. Islanders .. 1st ..... 2-0 ....... Islanders win, 3-2

1986 .. N.Y. Rangers .... 2nd ..... 2-1 ....... Rangers win, 4-2

1987 .. N.Y. Islanders .. 1st ..... 3-1 ....... Islanders win, 4-3

1989 .. Philadelphia .... 1st ..... 2-1 ....... Flyers win, 4-2

1992 .. Pittsburgh ...... 1st ..... 3-1 ....... Penguins win, 4-3

1995 .. Pittsburgh ...... 1st ..... 3-1 ....... Penguins win, 4-3

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