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And then there were four: Capitals fall just short in Game 7

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The Washington Capitals’ 2011-12 season is hockey’s answer to the adage “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

If you compare their ultimate results to the expectations they carried into the season, then one could argue that losing 2-1 to the No. 1 seed New York Rangers in a tight seven-game series still remains a disappointment. Context changes matters, however, as the Capitals pleased many who wanted them to play a more conventional, defensive-minded style after years of being hockey’s answer to “The Greatest Show on Turf” era St. Louis Rams.

Ultimately, the takeaway is very much a subjective thing, but the most rigid, bottom-line result is that the Alex Ovechkin Capitals still haven’t played a single conference finals match.

What happened?

The Capitals bounced back from some big challenges, yet they ultimately ran out of rebound opportunities once Game 7 rolled around. Washington shook of a triple-OT loss and perhaps an even more brutal last-second OT loss in Game 5 to push the series to the limit, but the Capitals couldn’t beat the Rangers at their own game in the end.

Who takes the blame?

Assuming that you’re on board with Dale Hunter’s decision to convert the Capitals roster to a defense-first-second-and-last machine, Alexander Semin is the easy target as usual. He had a -2 rating in Game 7 (representing both Rangers goals, whether they were his fault or not) and only had one assist in the entire series. In fact, he sandwiched that assist between two four-game pointless streaks, so it’s unlikely that the pending free agent made himself much money in the playoffs.

Plus, he’s Alexander Semin – his middle name might as well be “scapegoat.”

What will they do about it?

That’s where things can get very interesting.

First things first, it’s no guarantee that Dale Hunter will return as head coach – and it might be his choice, which is pretty unusual in this profession. If he wants to come back, Capitals GM George McPhee needs to determine that he really wants to go in the direction Hunter took them.

If his answer is “Yes,” the Capitals can clean house to a staggering degree. Go-to scapegoats such as Semin, Mike Green and Dennis Wideman headline the list of guys whose futures are foggy. Meanwhile, it seems likely that Tomas Vokoun and Mike Knuble won’t be back while John Carlson’s restricted free agent negotiations should be interesting to watch.

Vokoun brings things to an interesting third factor (beyond coaching and free agent yes-or-nos) for the Caps: should they go after a veteran goalie? Braden Holtby had a fantastic playoff run but hasn’t ever carried an NHL workload. Meanwhile, Michal Neuvirth has been solid-but-unspectacular on the NHL level.

If the orders are to go all-defense all-the-time, then they might just want to invest in a goalie with a heftier resume.

That’s the interesting thing about the Cap; beyond Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom’s lengthy contracts, McPhee has an intriguing opportunity to make sweeping changes. So let’s leave that to you, then: what would you do with this odd but still seemingly promising group?

More

And then there were 15: Is Detroit’s dynasty on its last legs?

And then there were 14: Sharks come out flat in playoffs

And then there were 13: Powerhouse Pens fall flat

And then there were 12: Presidents’ Trophy-winning Canucks bounced in Round 1

And then there were 11: Another first-round exit for Blackhawks

And then there were 10: Bruins run out of Game 7 magic

And then there were nine: Senators out, but future’s bright

And then there were eight: Panthers go out swinging

And then there were seven: Blues swept out of Western Conference semifinal

And then there were six: So much for Nashville’s mid-season reload

And then there were five: New-look Flyers produce familiar results

The Ducks look pretty mighty right now after six consecutive wins

Anaheim Ducks v Los Angeles Kings
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In what should be a disturbing trend for every other team in the Pacific Division, the Anaheim Ducks have now won six consecutive games, and eight of their last 10.

After dominating the shot clock for pretty much all of Friday’s game against the Arizona Coyotes, the Ducks completely took over on the scoreboard in the third period. It seemed like only a matter of time before a breakthrough would occur.

Just 24 hours after beating the L.A. Kings, the Ducks earned a 5-2 victory over the Coyotes.

Ryan Kesler has eight points in his last six games. Corey Perry has seven points in his last six games. Patrick Maroon, who had only eight points all season prior to Friday, had a three-point night versus Arizona.

Again. Bad news for every other team in the Pacific.

The Ducks now have a three-point lead over the Coyotes for third place in the division. They’re one point back of second-place San Jose and eight back of division-leading L.A.

As for everyone else, more specifically the Canucks, Flames and Oilers, well it might be time to start focusing more on the upcoming trade deadline and, beyond that, the draft.

The Ducks had a terrible start to this season, one that started with so much hype about a team seen as an immediate Stanley Cup contender for 2015-16.

Count Corey Perry as one who believes those early season struggles could pay off at playoff time.

And remember all of that talk in October about Bruce Boudreau perhaps at the end of his days as coach of the Ducks?

At the end of October, GM Bob Murray vowed to be patient despite such a poor start just a few months after being one win away from the Stanley Cup Final last June.

There is still plenty of hockey remaining in the regular season. The Ducks have 32 games remaining on their schedule. But it appears that patience Murray showed in October is paying off.

Jets can’t complete the comeback after miserable start against Hurricanes

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WINNIPEG, Manitoba (AP) Phillip Di Giuseppe, Andrej Nestrasil, Jordan Staal and Justin Faulk scored in the first period, and the Carolina Hurricanes held on for a 5-3 victory over the Winnipeg Jets on Friday night.

The Hurricanes scored four times on their first nine shots, taking a 4-0 lead just 10:04 into the game. Nestrasil added another goal in the third period, and Cam Ward made 33 saves. Staal and Joakim Nordstrom each had a pair of assists.

Alexander Burmistrov, Andrew Ladd and Blake Wheeler scored for Winnipeg.

Jets rookie Connor Hellebuyck allowed three goals while facing only six shots before being replaced by Michael Hutchinson after Staal’s power-play goal just 4:33 in. Hutchinson, who hadn’t played since a 4-1 loss in Anaheim on Jan. 3, finished with 21 saves.

The loss wrapped up Winnipeg’s season-high six-game homestand, which included just one victory.

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Carolina’s first goal came after the Jets turned over the puck and Di Giuseppe scored on a sharp-angled shot at 1:43.

Hellebuyck then kicked out a bad rebound and Nestrasil tallied his 16th goal of the season in his 100th NHL game from almost the same angle at 3:05.

With Byfuglien in the penalty box for delay of game, Staal’s shot beat Hellebuyck, ending the young goalie’s night.

Faulk made it 4-0 when his team’s third shot at Hutchinson went between his pads at 10:04.

The Jets came out at a faster, more aggressive pace to start the second period and it paid off with 1:25 remaining.

Andrew Copp and Chris Thorburn were battling a pair of Hurricanes behind the net when Thorburn poked the puck out front as he was falling and Burmistrov got his sixth goal of the season.

Ladd, who hit the post late in the second period, banged home a rebound with Hurricanes winger Jeff Skinner off for hooking at 9:07 of the third.

Byfuglien one-timed a pass from Nikolaj Ehlers that Wheeler deflected to make it 4-3 with 6:12 remaining.

Nestrasil sealed the win with his second goal at 18:40.

NOTES: Ehlers’ assist extended his point streak to six games, with four goals and four assists. … Winnipeg heads out for a two-game road trip starting in Colorado on Saturday. Carolina visits Montreal on Sunday.

Video: Zatkoff robs Condra with sprawling paddle save

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All Erik Condra had to do was lift the puck off the ice.

He didn’t, and as a result, he was robbed by sprawled out Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Jeff Zatkoff, who made a spectacular desperation save with the paddle of his stick on the Lightning forward.

The save occurred just past the midway point of the third period. That kept the Penguins in the game, down by a goal at the time.

However, the Penguins couldn’t get the equalizer. The result was a 6-3 loss for Pittsburgh, as Tampa Bay scored twice later in the period.

Defending Eastern Conference champion Bolts continue hot streak

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Remember those distractions the Tampa Bay Lightning had to endure?

— The future of captain Steven Stamkos, who is a pending unrestricted free agent and whose contract situation has been an ongoing discussion point for months now.

Jonathan Drouin‘s camp publicly requesting a trade, then having the 20-year-old forward sent to the minors and then suspended by Tampa Bay, etc.

Well, through it all, the defending Eastern Conference champions have emerged and are now one of the hottest teams in the National Hockey League . Since the start of January, the Bolts have lost twice. In 13 games.

They continued their hot streak Friday, defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins — another of those teams on an impressive streak — by a final score of 6-3, with Tyler Johnson leading the way with three points. He was one of six Tampa Bay players to record a multi-point night.

Penguins’ goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was pulled in the second period after allowing four goals on 14 shots.

Tampa Bay is now five points behind the Florida Panthers for first in the Atlantic Division.

For the Penguins, the loss keeps them on the outside of the playoff bubble for now. They remain one point back of New Jersey for the final Wild Card spot in the East.

Sidney Crosby extended his point streak to nine games. He also has goals in five straight and is one point shy of 900 for his career.