The Washington Capitals' preparation for tonight's game in Buffalo was going on as usual at Piney Orchard Ice Arena yesterday, but the scene was eerily different. It was quiet on the ice. Every skate blade scraping the surface grated on the ears. Every tap of the stick echoed around the boards.
The electricity that had surrounded the Capitals' drive toward the final Eastern Conference playoff spot the last month was gone.
That's the way it is the day after elimination. With two games left, the Caps know they aren't going anywhere. The Carolina Hurricanes' 4-2 victory over Tampa Bay on Wednesday night made that final.
"A lot of people are upset. We are upset," said Caps right wing Jaromir Jagr. "The way we played lately, we could have gone very far in the playoffs. We would have beaten anybody, with a little luck. I think that is the sad thing. We messed up early in the season and could not make it up."
The sadness comes because Washington has been one of the best teams in the NHL since the All-Star break, going 15-7-3.
It is true the Caps had injuries. Before the season was 11 games old, defensive anchor Calle Johansson (shoulder) and key defensive forward Steve Konowalchuk (shoulder) were injured.
"We didn't have an answer for that," said Caps coach Ron Wilson. "If those two guys hadn't gotten hurt ... "
And Jagr, who said yesterday that it took him five months to finally feel completely comfortable with his new team, suffered a knee injury that would bother him for months. About 35 games into the season, he had become his old self and steadily moved up the points ladder and is currently fifth in the league with 77.
"We have a pretty good hockey team," said goalie Olie Kolzig. "Everyone in the league knows we underachieved. The situation we put ourselves in - it's the most frustrating season I've ever had.
"We need to get off to a winning start. Then if you have injury problems, you have a bit of a cushion to play with. But, basically, the coach gave us a game plan and for the most part this year we didn't follow it. I think we didn't play with the sense of urgency we should have because of what we did in the past - overcoming slow starts. This time, it was too late and other teams didn't lose."
Wilson said the game plan was to defend the Caps' zone first, something his players were slow to do.
"That's not Ron Wilson's game plan," he said. "That's the league game plan. Look around. The teams with the best goals-against averages are in the playoffs. We've got the 11th-best goals-against average in our conference [2.90] and we're out."
During the team's picture day Monday, owner Ted Leonsis said both Wilson and general manager George McPhee would return next season, but added their jobs would be on the line should the team get off to another slow start. Leonsis also said he thought the Caps were in need of two forwards to complete the top two lines of Jagr and Dainius Zubrus (who has won acclaim at center after last month's trade of Adam Oates) and Peter Bondra and Andrei Nikolishin.
Yesterday, both Wilson and McPhee said the owner's words changed little where they are concerned, as ownership pressure is no greater than what they impose on themselves.
A positive result from this season has been the emergence of rookies Nolan Yonkman and Jean-Francois Fortin, two big, swift defensemen.
As for who may leave this team before next season, McPhee insisted those decisions have not yet been made.
"Every year, there are eight to 10 players you make decisions on," McPhee said. "I'm really disappointed with the way things have gone, but we're going to be a good team next year. I'm very confident in saying that."