The Washington Capitals failed to make it out of the second round of the playoffs with Alex Ovechkin in the lineup, but they’re actually well equipped to be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender for a long time.
Tuesday night was a terrible night to be a Washington Capitals fan. Wednesday will be an even worse day to be one. And the coming days, both in the short- and long-term in the off-season, will be tinged with regret and lamentations about what might have been.
This was a year when the Stanley Cup was the Capitals to lose…and they lost it. With a number of the heavyweights already out of the tournament in the first round, the Capitals came into the second round as the best team in the NHL and the prohibitive favorite. Instead, the Capitals and their fans will be left to ponder why a team with such an abundance of talent at all positions is such an abject failure in the playoffs.
There will be pain this summer. There will be questions about what this team needs to put itself over the top. It went out and got one of the most accomplished playoff performers of its generation. It’s goaltender put together a season worthy of the Vezina and Hart Trophies. Alex Ovechkin scored 50 for the third straight season. Defensively, the Capitals had been performing better than they ever had.
So what does this team need to do to win a Stanley Cup? How about nothing? Consider that in the first 11 years of his Hall of Fame career, Steve Yzerman had led his team to just five series victories. With 63 points in 60 playoff games, he was a point-per-game producer in the playoffs. He had already cemented his credentials with six 100-point seasons. The only difference was the Red Wings had made the conference final twice, but were still looking for sustained playoff success.
Now consider that in his first 11 years, Ovechkin has led the Capitals to five playoff series victories. With 82 points in 84 playoff games, he is basically a point-per-game player. Ovechkin has scored 50 goals seven times. And like the Red Wings, the Capitals are looking for a post-season run worth celebrating.
Sometimes growing pains are relatively short. They certainly were for the Edmonton Oilers and New York Islanders, two teams that became NHL dynasties after learning their playoff lessons quickly. The Islanders lost in the second round to the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1978 after finishing 19 points ahead of them. Four years later, the Oilers suffered one of the worst upsets in playoff history, losing to the Los Angeles Kings. They finished 48 points ahead of their first-round opponent and lost Game 3 of the series after taking a 5-0 lead after two periods.
The Capitals were already supposed to have learned their lesson way back in 2010, when they won the Presidents’ Trophy, only to lose to the Montreal Canadiens in the first round. Instead of smarting from that, the Capitals have won just four playoff rounds since then and have yet to get past the second round of the post-season. But like we said, sometimes it takes teams a little longer to get the message than others. What has got to make this more galling for the Capitals and their fan base is that of the seven most recent teams to eliminate Washington in the playoffs, five of them have had fewer points.
It can’t continue. Unless it does for a little while more. But this team will win a Stanley Cup one day. It is too top-heavy with stars, too well run, too good in goal and too well coached not to win. And this is hardly a team whose window on winning a Stanley Cup is closing. Ovechkin is only 30 and Nicklas Backstrom is 28. Braden Holtby is only 26 and the Capitals have a number of impact players who are 25 and under. For a team that has finished as high as they have in the standings, they have a pretty decent prospect list as well, players that will continue to push their way into Washington’s lineup.
The Capitals have stable ownership, a steady stream of revenues that will keep them at or near the top of the salary cap and an franchise that has become a destination for free agents. This is not a team going in the wrong direction. The Capitals, in fact, are doing the opposite and like Yzerman and the Red Wings two decades ago, it’s just taking them a little longer than everyone expected.
And it will probably happen in one of those years when nobody expects it to, the way the Penguins are doing it this year. Who knows? Perhaps being so dominant and cruising to first place overall so early took the competitive edge off the Capitals down the stretch and dulled it by the time the playoffs came. The Penguins were a lot faster, that much we know, and that was a huge factor in the series. Perhaps the Capitals were so focused on being a big puck possession team, like the ones in the Western Conference, that it forgot it needs to play three rounds in the Eastern Conference first.
Whatever the case, it’s hard to believe anyone would pin this one on the Capitals star players. Because of that there will be changes, But rather than replacing the cornerstones of the franchise, the Capitals will do some minor renovations and hope that’s good enough to finally get over the hump. The betting here is that it will. The Capitals will be back.