WASHINGTON - Led by heart-on-his-sleeve superstar Alex Ovechkin, the Washington Capitals have perhaps the best and most excitable collection of young talent in the NHL.
Maybe that was the problem. As the playoffs showed, those youngsters are still an emotionally fragile group, prone to stage fright at the moments when they ought to be stealing the show.
"Maybe we were afraid," forward Brooks Laich said Wednesday night, "to just take charge and get it done."
Laich's comments were echoed in the locker-room and on the podium in the aftermath of a stunning Game 7 rout on home ice, a 6-2 loss to the rival Pittsburgh Penguins in the conference semifinals. The Capitals were never in the game, even though it was the biggest NHL event in the nation's capital in more than a decade.
"It seemed like everybody had heavy legs," defenceman Brian Pothier said. "We weren't jumping. We weren't exploding on pucks. Every time we made a pass, it was either off or blew up every time it got to its destination.
"It's really hard to explain. I'm honestly sort of at a loss. Our coaching staff prepared us and we knew the importance of the game. It's a Game 7 against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round of the playoffs. I think maybe that factored into it that we were maybe a little tight."
The future remains extremely bright for the Capitals. Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Mike Green, Nicklas Backstrom and recent bloomer Simeon Varlamov form the core of a group that could contend for Stanley Cups for years to come.
But it's time for them to grow up, or, at the very least, time for management to get some stronger veteran leadership in the locker-room.
The Capitals were good enough to earn the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference, but they coasted once they secured a playoff berth and had trouble flipping the switch back on when the post-season began.
They allowed the offensively challenged New York Rangers to take a 3-1 series lead in the first round as Sean Avery and Co. got into the Capitals' heads with their physical play and forced Washington into three desperate wins.
Then came the Penguins. During Game 3, with the Capitals holding a 2-0 series lead, coach Bruce Boudreau told his players they were "playing not to lose rather than to win," an admonition he could've used on several other moments during the playoffs. Pittsburgh won four of the next five games.
To their credit, the Capitals did win three elimination games against the Rangers and one against the Penguins, showing a never-give-up attitude that could serve them well in future seasons.
But no one could explain what happened Wednesday night.
"It's not easy to stand here and say that we've been outworked in our building in a Game 7," Laich said. "That's not something that's easy to say, but I'm sure we're going to have to think about that for a long time."
Chris Clark is nominally the team captain, but the leader of the Capitals is unquestionably the 23-year-old Ovechkin. That works out fine when he's firing up his teammates with his big toothy smile and animated gestures, but his reckless and impulsive streaks hardly set the best example.
For a contrast, look across the ice at Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, whose steady demeanour produced two goals and an assist in his first NHL Game 7.
"We're not old veterans, by any means," said Crosby, sounding more mature than his 21 years. "But at the same time, we've been through a lot for a young group."
Last year, the Capitals returned from playoff exile and were eliminated in the first round. This year, they made it one step further. Next year? It could hinge, as Boudreau indicated, on that thing called maturity.
"We are very close to being a very good team," Boudreau said. "Maybe all it is a little bit more maturity in some areas, and we will be able to make that step. I would believe next year, if you were asking me right now, we'd be very disappointed if we weren't in the final four."