WASHINGTON - Say this for Alex Ovechkin's Washington Capitals: They hardly can be accused of hiding their aspirations.
When NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly presented Ovechkin with the Presidents' Trophy during an on-ice pre-game ceremony nearly three weeks ago, the league's two-time MVP refused to touch the award. He didn't even glance at it, saying later: "We just wait for the big things coming."
And Washington coach Bruce Boudreau made his team's hopes clear that night, too, noting: "It's not the one we want."
They wanted the Stanley Cup. Writing on his blog Thursday, Capitals owner Ted Leonsis referred to aiming for a championship and wrote, "To fall short so early in the process this year is quite humbling."
Instead, that other trophy, the one signifying regular-season excellence, is all the Capitals have to show for 2009-10. They became the first top-seeded team to blow a 3-1 series lead against a No. 8 and were eliminated in the first round by goalie Jaroslav Halak and the Montreal Canadiens with a 2-1 loss in Game 7 on Wednesday night.
"If someone came to your work and stepped on your desk or punched you in the head?that's how I feel," Capitals forward Jason Chimera said. "You come for a long playoff run, and it doesn't happen, it's tough."
Thursday marked Day 1 of a much lengthier off-season than the Capitals anticipated, an off-season that begins with questions:
?Is this a team built for the regular season?
?Can its go-go, high-flying system succeed in the playoffs?
?Are changes needed? How extensive?
"It looks like we're not good enough," centre Nicklas Backstrom said.
All four of Washington's playoff series over the past three seasons have gone to a Game 7, and the club is 1-3 in those contests, only once reaching the second round.
After Wednesday's setback, Boudreau bristled at a pointed query about whether the latest disappointment validates criticisms that his team's style of play doesn't work in the playoffs.
"It doesn't validate anything," Boudreau replied. "I think the way we play is the way we were built, and if we had to make all these guys into checkers and play a trap game, I think it would have been a pretty boring team to watch, and we wouldn't have been anywhere near as successful as we were."
The Capitals won a third consecutive Southeast Division title. They set franchise records for victories (54) and points (121). They tied the club mark for home victories (30). They scored more goals in the regular season than any team since the 1995-96 Pittsburgh Penguins.
Ovechkin became only the third player in history with 50 goals in four of his first five seasons and was one of three finalists for the Hart Trophy as league MVP announced Thursday; Backstrom topped 100 points for the first time; Alexander Semin notched his first 40-goal season; Mike Green led NHL defencemen in goals and assists.
Yet they are well aware that they fell short in the part of the year that counts the most.
Semin didn't score a goal against Montreal, stretching his playoff drought to 14 games. Green didn't put the puck in the net during this series, either, and he also was called for a cross-checking penalty Wednesday that gave Montreal a 4-on-3 opportunity, setting up the game's first goal.
The Capitals had the NHL's top power-play unit in the regular season, converting 25 per cent of chances, but went 1-for-33 on the man-advantage against the Canadiens.
"I think we all know we have a pretty good team," Ovechkin said. "We didn't win when we have to win."
After being held to one or zero goals a total of three times in their first 86 games of 2009-10, including the playoffs, the Capitals were limited to one goal in each of the last three games against Halak.
"Maybe we didn't work hard enough. We were scoring a thousand goals in the regular season, and we can't even score in the playoffs," Backstrom said. "That's kind of not acceptable for our team."
Now comes the time to look forward, for Leonsis and general manager George McPhee to decide if the club that so quickly went from the bottom of the NHL to the top?in the regular season, anyway?is capable of a prolonged playoff run.
And if it's not, they must decide what needs to be done to change that.
On his blog Thursday, Leonsis wrote: "I believe our hockey IQ seemed low this series and we didn't adjust well on the ice to the new schemes coming our way." The owner also promised: "We won't do anything rash or make any decisions out of emotional angst."
That last part might be comforting to Boudreau, who sounded convinced that Ovechkin&Co. are heading in the right direction.
"We're still young. ... We've just touched the surface on how good the team can play. You make little bit of improvements every year, and I think we'll be a better team next year," Boudreau said. "Hopefully this is a lesson. It's a tough lesson to learn, because you thought after last year that you're going to win the cup. Not that we took anybody for granted. At all."