They had stars that played to their elite status, as Marty St. Louis (five points), Vinny Lecavalier (six points) and Steven Stamkos(notes) (two goals) outplayed their counterparts. Their grunts worked harder, as Sean Bergenheim(notes) had four goals in the series, including two tallies in the Game 4 win. Their goalie provided more backbone, as 41-year-old Dwayne Roloson(notes) made 123 saves on 133 shots and baffled the Caps' power play for most of the series.
They were committed to their coach's system, without reservations. They played to win rather than not to lose. They entered the series under the radar and given little chance by the majority of pundits; which is to say that they entered without the crushing expectations that the Capitals did.
Who were the 2010-11 Washington Capitals? A team predestined for greatness that did everything it could to prove the prophecy wrong.
For the first time since its inception, the Winter Classic will not produce a Stanley Cup finalist. For the third straight year, a Capitals team pegged for greatness instead leaves the postseason having failed to match the hype.
And what hype; after all, they were reality television stars this season. It was on HBO "24/7" where coach Bruce Boudreau, his future now seriously in question, unknowingly penned the epitaph for this year's Capitals after a December defeat to the Panthers:
"I have never seen a bunch of guys look so [expletive] down when something bad happens. What are you guys, so prima donna perfect that you can't [expletive] handle adversity? So [expletive's] not goin' right … [Expletive] get your [expletive] heads out of your ass and [expletive] make it work by outworkin' the opposition.
"OUTWORK THE [EXPLETIVE] GUYS. IF YOU WANT IT, DON'T JUST THINK YOU WANT IT. GO OUT AND [EXPLETIVE] WANT IT. But you're not lookin' like you want it. You look like you're feeling sorry for yourselves. And nobody [expletive] wants someone that's feeling sorry for themselves."
The Lightning confidently dispatched the Capitals with the stoic professionalism of an assassin. The Capitals' mistakes increased as the pressure did. They were outworked. They thought they wanted it, but they didn't take it.
So are the fans, from the recently converted crying in their red T-shirts to the crusty Cap Centre veterans for whom playoff heartbreak has been an annual rite.
So is management, providing the pieces and the patience yet never seeing the team advance past the conference semifinals.
So is the owner, who writes proclamations like "we have arrived" only to see his team fail to meet expectations in the postseason.
Thus begins the same, sad postmortem that's functionally played out for the last three seasons. Praise for the skill of the opponents. Finding out who was hurt, and how badly. Players without answers. Who'll be back. Who won't be.
After offering his regrets, Ovechkin will return to Russia, rest his ailments, hang at some clubs, give a few interviews about how frustrating his team's lack of success has been. Meanwhile, Sidney Crosby(notes) and Evgeni Malkin(notes) and Jonathan Toews(notes) and Patrick Kane(notes) and now Steven Stamkos have all advanced further in the Stanley Cup Playoffs than he has.
This isn't to blame Ovechkin for his team's postseason struggles. He showed up in ways his teammates didn't in this series. But those are the facts: In a generation of young stars in the NHL, Alex Ovechkin(notes) doesn't have the same level of accomplishment when it matters.
The players will soul-search; management will have to answer some difficult questions about its own decisions.
But after 189 wins in 307 regular-season games haven't led to anything but a semifinal exit, Boudreau's return for 2011-12 is rightfully in question.
In eliminations against the Pittsburgh Penguins (2009), the Montreal Canadiens (2010) and the Tampa Bay Lightning (2011), Boudreau was outcoached. Bad line changes and too many men on the ice penalties -- on a power play, no less -- undermined the team against Tampa. He's been unable to extract the same level of intensity from his players in the postseason as he has the regular season.
He went all-in with a change in style this season, turning the free-wheeling firewagon team that helped pack the stands at Verizon Center into a more defensively responsible group. It was seen as a necessary evolution for the team to find success in the playoffs. But the players' commitment to that system wavered in the semifinals; and all it led to was a four-game flop.
Boudreau is well-liked by players, fans and the media in and out of D.C. There's no obvious alternative as a head coach. But fear of the unknown is never a suitable excuse for the inadequacies of the status quo.
Call it scape-goating, call is a sacrifice, call it what you will: This should be Boudreau's final game as head coach, because standards need to be higher than this.
GM George McPhee seemed to make the necessary personnel changes this year. He added the veteran second line center they desperately needed in Jason Arnott(notes) … who had three assists in the Tampa series. He added the veteran defensive defenseman they needed in Scott Hannan(notes) … who underwhelmed against the Lightning and cost the Capitals Game 2 with a terrible change in overtime.
Does McPhee keep his coach? What does he do to a roster that's still young and has even more talented youth in the pipeline?
There were times when it all came together this season for the Capitals, but it never stayed together. Go back to the Boudreau quote on "24/7":
"I have never seen a bunch of guys look so [expletive] down when something bad happens."
That's the Capitals now in the playoffs. Easily rattled. Unable to overcome adversity. Meekly going out in a Game 4 against Tampa.
Maybe the mindset changes with a change behind the bench, or with a change to the team's core. Maybe things will be different next season.
But a sweep. A humbling, embarrassing sweep to end their season; a season that saw the Penguins eliminated, the Canadiens eliminated, the path to the Stanley Cup never clearer.
And yet, the Capitals are done.