A big sign stretched across the front of the Washington Capitals' practice facility at Piney Orchard Ice Rink in Odenton yesterday. "Proud To Be A Caps Fan," it read.
Inside, the Capitals were packing their bags. Defenseman Sergei Gonchar appreciated the sentiment, but it didn't make him feel any better.
"I feel bad," said Gonchar, who happened to be the man carrying the puck out of the Caps' zone Monday night when it hit a bad patch of ice and bounced over his stick and into the grasp of Pittsburgh's talented Martin Straka.
Straka broke in on goalie Olie Kolzig for the game-winning goal in overtime that eliminated the Capitals from the NHL playoffs.
"I'm probably going to remember that play the rest of my life," said Gonchar, his eyes red and puffy. "And I'll dream about it for the next two months. It was bad ice, totally. I was looking for someone to pass to. The puck was on my stick - and then it wasn't.
"It's tough, but you have to get over it."
The Capitals will spend the summer getting over the loss of this series. Coming to terms with it. Trying to find peace in the knowledge that they played six outstanding games in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals only to be beaten, 4 games to 2, by the more offensively gifted Pittsburgh Penguins.
"That's just hockey," said Steve Konowalchuk, who, with linemate Jeff Halpern, led the Caps' playoff scoring with two goals and three assists each. "That bounce could have happened to all of us. It was just circumstantial.
"I hope everyone appreciates what we did. We may not be the fanciest, but everyone should know that we're going to give the full effort every game and know that we'll be in every game."
It was the sixth playoff loss in seven tries against the Penguins in the last 11 years. But yesterday, Kolzig, who finished with a 2.24 goals-against average and a .908 save percentage, said this series was different.
"In the others," he said, "we always did something to beat ourselves. This time, we played great hockey. We didn't shoot ourselves in the foot. This time, we went toe-to-toe with them and the difference was that they were able to score one more goal."
Capitals general manager George McPhee also saw a difference between this series and the one the Capitals were swept away in, 4-1, a year ago.
"Last year, there were surprises," McPhee said. "The team played well in the regular season and that may have surprised people. Then getting bounced in the first round was a surprise. This year, we knew what we were up against. We played as well as we could. They were just better.
"It's now very clear. We need more offense. We're a strong team in many ways. We've got good goaltending, good defensemen and strong character. What we need is more goals."
McPhee said management will put a plan together and work at strengthening the offense. The NHLPA says there will be a number of very good free agents available this summer, including Joe Sakic and Rob Blake in Colorado, Jeremy Roenick in Phoenix, John LeClair in Philadelphia, Pierre Turgeon in St. Louis and Alexander Mogilny in New Jersey.
"But besides free agents," McPhee said, "we'll be looking into trades. I think there will be a lot of activity this summer."
Of course, words like those create mixed emotions among the Capitals. As right wing Peter Bondra said: "Hopefully, we won't have to give up anyone. ... We have a good team. We were a shot away from winning."
Caps coach Ron Wilson noted: "Getting Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr could make a big difference, but as it is, we have to continue to focus on doing the little things well.
"We have to do the things that seem mundane, so that when you're in the cauldron, you have a firm base to fall back on so you won't make mistakes.
"But the things I'm most proud of is that we never gave up," said Wilson. "We battled hard every night and when we left the building, there was nothing left in the tank."
The Capitals have a number of players on their roster they have to make decisions about, including center Adam Oates, right wing Ulf Dahlen and Halpern.
Dahlen, who is a free agent, and Halpern, a restricted free agent, played on a line with Konowalchuk. It was easily the Caps' best and most consistent throughout the regular season and the postseason. Together, they produced 11 of the team's 18 playoff points. McPhee said it is one of his priorities to get them signed.
The GM was less direct when asked about Oates, who played terrifically in Game 6, winning 65 percent of his faceoffs, but was not present at the mandatory, season-ending team meeting yesterday.
McPhee said Oates hadn't been excused from the meeting. It wasn't until later in the day that he learned Oates "thought it was an informal meeting."
Oates, 38, tied Jagr for the league lead in assists this season. But, when asked if picking up Oates' contract option also was a priority, McPhee said it was one of a number of things that had to be discussed with ownership. He also said he didn't think Oates' playoff slump (he had no points) had anything to do with his age.
"He was a little banged up," McPhee said. "He twisted a knee before the end of the regular season and then he had a bad ankle. No one mentioned it. You don't want anyone to know those kinds of things in the playoffs."
McPhee also said he had no second thoughts about the trade that brought center Trevor Linden, right wing Dainius Zubrus and backup defenseman Jason Marshall to the team in exchange for Richard Zednik and Jan Bulis.
"No second thoughts at all," said McPhee. "Linden [four assists] helped us a lot and Zubrus was our biggest hitter. He punished Pittsburgh. Zed had no points in the playoffs last year and Bulis wasn't going to play."