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Elfin: Playoff Ejection Means The Hour Glass Is Set For Hunter To Make A Decision

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Credit: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Credit: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

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There’s no reason for Caps fans to be hanging their heads as they return to work this morning, less than 36 hours after their team slipped to 3-8 in Game 7s with Saturday night’s 2-1 loss to the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.

True, the Caps failed to advance beyond the Eastern Conference semifinals for the 13th consecutive season.

True, the Caps were on the wrong end of the handshake line that makes the NHL playoffs different from other sports’ postseasons.

True, Washington might have been Joel Ward’s accidental high-sticking double-minor with 22 seconds left in Game 5 from upsetting the top-seeded Rangers and advancing to just its third conference finals and its first since 1998.

But for all the heartache and what ifs the Caps and their fans have pondered since the horn sounded on Saturday night, this year’s defeat feels different to me, although my friend Danny Cahn, a Caps’ season ticket-holder, disagrees. He believes that it’s always equally painful when his team is eliminated.

But as someone who listened to Ron Weber call the first game in Caps history (a loss at the Garden to the Rangers in October 1974), attended the final victory of that first season and covered them in the playoffs and/or the season in 1987, 1988, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1995, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2008 and this year, I feel very qualified to rate the level of devastation of each spring’s elimination.

Consider that this year the Caps weren’t knocked off by a lower-seeded opponent as was the case in 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1992, 1993, 2001, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011.

Consider that unlike 1985 (2-0), 1987 (3-1), 1992 (3-1), 1995 (3-1), 1996 (2-0), 2003 (2-0), 2009 (2-0) and 2010 (3-1), the Caps didn’t gag on a big lead in a series before losing.

Consider that unlike 1983, 1985, 1987, 1988, 1990, 1992, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2003, 2008, 2009 and 2010, the Caps weren’t eliminated on home ice.

That leaves 1984, 1991, 1994 and 2012. Throw out 1984 since Washington didn’t get past the first round that year and we’re left with 1991, 1994 and 2012. The Caps fell in five games to the eventual Stanley Cup champions in the second round in the first two of those seasons. The Rangers, the top-seeded team left this spring, are favored to be hoisting Lord Stanley’s chalice next month. If that happens, I would argue that this is the least disappointing of any of the Caps’ 21 first- or second-round playoff defeats since, unlike 1991 and 1994, they would have taken the champs the distance.

Also consider that six of Washington’s seven losses this spring came by a goal (with the other by two goals). The Caps and Rangers were tied or separated by just a goal for more than 90 percent of their series. For just the sixth time in NHL history, the teams alternated victories throughout a seven-game series. It’s hard to be much closer than that.

As was the case when the Caps reached their first conference finals back in 1990 (Terry Murray had replaced his brother Bryan in January) and when they reached their lone Cup finals in 1998 (Ron Wilson was the new man behind the bench that season), this year’s team took some time to adjust to a coaching change before taking off when it really counted. And the change in style of play from Bruce Boudreau to Dale Hunter, who succeeded him on Nov. 28, was of much greater magnitude than the other two aforementioned switches.

So the big question for the Caps as they head into another offseason isn’t: whether mercurial winger/free agent-to-be Alexander Semin is done in Washington after his least productive season since he was a rookie in 2003-04; whether two-time Hart Trophy (MVP) winner Alex Ovechkin can ever fully regain his mojo while playing Hunter’s system; or whether general manager George McPhee will acquire a reliable second-line center; or whether Braden Holtby – who joined multiple Cup-winners Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur as the only goalies with a goal-against average under 2.00 and a save percentage better than .920 in at least 14 playoff games before their 23rd birthdays – is for real.

No, the big question for the Caps is whether their incredible resiliency (they didn’t lose two in a row from March 23 through Saturday, a stretch of seven weeks and they kept coming back against the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins and the Rangers) is enough to convince Hunter to return next season.

A gritty Caps center from 1987-99, the 51-year-old Hunter was loving life as the co-owner, president and coach of the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League, less than two hours from his hometown of Petrolia, when McPhee and Caps owner Ted Leonsis called and asked him to toughen up their team.

That mission has been accomplished as the Caps have transformed from the freewheeling offensive juggernaut of the Boudreau years to a taut, defensive-minded team. But Hunter, who never won the Cup as a player, has yet to achieve that ultimate hockey dream. Will chasing that goal be enough to keep Hunter in the big city for a full season? If so, Washington will start next year as a serious contender to be celebrating a championship in June 2013.

David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March.

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