As the Washington Capitals sifted through the ruins of their lost season, naturally they searched for the specific moment when it went awry.
There are several instances that can be pinpointed, but perhaps the freshest in the Capitals' minds was the stark juxtaposition between their successful California road trip last month and the ill-timed slide that immediately followed.
On March 18, Washington embarked on a grueling three-game road trip through California two points behind the New York Rangers, who at the time held the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.
The Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks were among the top eight teams in the NHL and had been unkind to visiting teams who faced them in succession. Of the 15 teams that did so before Washington, only four earned at least four of a possible six points.
The Capitals far exceeded expectations with a 2-0-1 record on the trip, leaving them lingering on the cusp of the playoff picture upon their return home.
In their first game back at Verizon Center, the Capitals led the Kings 3-1 entering the third period and seemed poised to vault themselves back into the mix. But they ultimately blew their 13th two-goal lead of the season (and sixth in the third period) before falling 5-4 in a shootout, the first loss in a debilitating five-game skid that proved fatal.
"I thought we lost that [swagger], that cockiness. I thought we just got too complacent," forward Joel Ward said. "We went in there in California and knew what was at stake and played desperate and cocky, but at the same time I thought we had a little bit of extra cockiness that we had a good feeling that we were going to win. We came back home, we might have thought we just expected to win all of a sudden. We lost that and we just got in a rut and we couldn't dig ourselves out of it.
"I think the games that we've won in the course of the years I've been here, we've had a pretty good little cockiness, a little swagger and we lost it at times and gained it at times, but we couldn't put it together for the full time at the end."
The Capitals will spend the next several months processing what went wrong, an empty feeling that will surely linger knowing just how close they were standings-wise to potentially salvaging the season.
“Yeah, I mean we came home, we had a 3-1 lead against [Los Angeles], we blew it. That hurt," coach Adam Oates said. "And then obviously [a 4-2 loss to the Boston Bruins on March 29] hurt and [a 5-0 loss to the Dallas Stars on April 1] hurt. Otherwise, for a 20-game window we played pretty good, but it was still collectively throughout the year, I think. Those games are magnified because the first 50 we didn’t do a good enough job.”
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