Capitals say painful goodbyes

Hardly good word heard as homebound players reflect on lost chances

Hockey

April 23, 2003|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

The Washington Capitals cleaned out their lockers and had individual meetings with their coach and general manager yesterday at their Odenton practice facility. A year ago, those interviews led to the firing of the coach.

This year, there will be nothing so dramatic. But that doesn't mean the Caps are at ease after losing their best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarterfinal series to the Tampa Bay Lightning, dropping four straight games after going up 2-0.

Veteran Calle Johansson, the team's anchor on defense, played just 13 minutes in the 2-1, triple-overtime loss in Game 6 and was vocal about his discontent, threatening to quit.

Jaromir Jagr, Washington's biggest offensive weapon, was dissatisfied with himself and "frustrated with hockey."

Ken Klee, perhaps the team's second-most reliable defenseman, will test free agency.

And owner Ted Leonsis, who has been fan-responsive to the tune of a $60 million payroll, was bitterly disappointed Sunday.

He said the team probably would not participate in the free-agent market this summer and, given the "lack of interest" demonstrated by three home playoff games that did not sell out, he would reassess his financial investment in the team, which lost $20 million this season.

Leonsis' remarks left even the best players on the team wondering if they'd be traded because of their big salaries.

"I don't know if I'll be back here," said Jagr, who makes $13 million a year and led the Caps in postseason points with seven (two goals, five assists). "It's up to ownership. But of course I want to be. ... I don't want to be changing teams every year. ... Right now, I am frustrated with hockey. But I have a long summer and I will work hard, do everything I can to get better."

Jagr performed best when paired with wing Kip Miller this season. That pairing was limited coming into the playoffs because of injuries to Miller that were never specified. Yesterday, GM George McPhee said Miller had broken his shoulder with four weeks to go in the season and never fully recovered.

Peter Bondra, whose contract extension was picked up by the Caps two months ago, according to The Washington Post, said: "I hope Ted gives us a chance for another year. It would be nice to finish my career here. But it's all up to Ted and George."

For his part, McPhee said he was not disappointed with his team. He said he wants Jagr back and Bondra back and Johansson back, and Klee, too - if he can work out a sensible deal.

"I don't ever want to make excuses for them," McPhee said about the series loss. "I don't want to let them off the hook, but those two calls in overtime in Game 3 - a call that hadn't been made in 70 years and won't be made for another 70 years - changed everything."

The rare five-on-three opportunity was quickly converted by Tampa Bay, restoring the Lightning's confidence and sparking four straight victories.

Everyone hurt yesterday, but perhaps no one more than Johansson. Since 1989, he has played 982 games for the Caps.

Not only was he devastated by the Caps' elimination, but he also was crushed by his inability to help, as coach Bruce Cassidy decided to keep the 36-year-old on the bench and go with younger players for all but 13 minutes of the final game.

Cassidy and Johansson met for an hour. Neither looked happy emerging from the room, but Johansson said it had been a good meeting.

"We discussed some stuff," Johansson said. "We agreed on some things and continue to disagree on others. ... Maybe I'm a little stubborn and maybe the other party is a little stubborn. ... But we've decided to give it a couple days or a week and meet again. However it goes, I have no regrets. I've played as hard as I could every night."

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