Weeks from now, many of the Washington Capitals will probably look back on their season and call it a great success.
Immediately after being swept by the Detroit Red Wings, however, the Capitals were in no mood to reflect on a job well done.
"When you lose in the final, you feel as if you've been fighting and working hard but you have nothing to show for it," defenseman Sergei Gonchar said Tuesday night after Detroit completed its Stanley Cup finals sweep with a 4-1 victory.
The Capitals never quit trying, refused to back down and at no time gave the impression of being intimidated by their first appearance in the Cup finals.
Washington was not swept by the Red Wings because of a lack of effort. There was really only one reason why Detroit frolicked at the MCI Center with the Stanley Cup held high: The better team won.
"They seemed to beat us in every area," Capitals coach Ron Wilson said. "Not by a large margin, but in a lot of ways."
The sweep took some of the luster off a breakthrough season for the Capitals, who surged into the finals despite finishing the regular season just 10 games over .500 as the fourth seed in the East.
Washington won three straight series on the strength of solid goaltending by Olaf Kolzig, who played well enough against the Red Wings' snipers. But the Capitals were outshot 163-99 in the series, and Kolzig simply couldn't handle the endless barrage.
"It hurts. There's no question it hurts," center Adam Oates said. "We played well and won three straight series and were on such a high in Buffalo 10 days ago. Then all of a sudden you lose four straight. It's pretty tough."
The bottom line: Detroit had far more speed, depth and savvy than the Capitals. The Red Wings played four solid lines, employed eight exceptional defensemen and won a vast majority of the faceoffs. Detroit also had a coach, Scotty Bowman, who was intent upon winning his record-tying eighth Stanley Cup.
After being outscored 5-0 in the first period of the opening three games, the Capitals spoke for two days about getting off to a better start. It was essential, really, because the Red Wings were 12-1 in the playoffs when scoring the first goal.
Washington managed two breakaways in the first few minutes, a sign that maybe things would be different this time.
As the period wore on, the Red Wings' speed and depth began to take its toll. Detroit took a 1-0 lead midway through the period and skated off the ice with the advantage intact.
It marked the beginning of the end for the Capitals.
"It's been the story of the series. They score in the first period and we're playing catchup," Washington defenseman Joe Reekie said after the opening 20 minutes. "We played hard ... buthey're a great team."
The first period looked like all the rest, but this game was different from the previous three for two reasons the Capitals lost each of the first three games by one goal, and in Game 4 Washington was undone by the one unit that had actually outdone its Detroit counterpart.
The Capitals had held the Red Wings to an 0-for-12 performance on the power play over the first three games, but Detroit scored three extra-man goals Tuesday.
The last one put Detroit up 4-1 early in the third period, and at that point the Capitals seemed to realize their fate. But they skated hard to the finish, and when they went through the ceremonial handshake at center ice after the game they had no reason to rue their luck.
After all, no Washington hockey team had ever gotten this far. And there was nothing embarrassing about losing to the Detroit Red Wings, who went 16-6 in the playoffs in recording their second straight sweep in the finals.
"We're not losers," Wilson insisted. "There's 24 other teams that would have died to get swept in the Stanley Cup finals. I'm very proud."
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