When it came to giving themselves the best chance at playoff success, the Washington Capitals had just about every box checked off. They had a new voice behind the bench, they had a big, grinding team that could win the battles of attrition, their superstar player was showing up, their goaltending was all-world, their secondary scoring was decent and their defense corps had a really good blend of punishers and two-way players.
Yet there they were Wednesday night, once again shaking hands at center ice as the losers of yet another playoff series, another Game 7 and another defeat at the hands of the New York Rangers. Two things have to make it particularly grinding this time around. First, the Capitals were 141 seconds away from winning the series in five games. Second, in that same game, a goal by Matt Niskanen that would have provided the margin of victory in regulation time was waived off after Derek Stepan clearly pushed Joel Ward into Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist.
But the Capitals still had two more chances to finish off the Rangers, but couldn’t do it. Again. For the third straight year. Perhaps for the Capitals, it’s just a matter of avoiding the Rangers in the playoffs. Some teams just have that effect on other ones. The Ottawa Senators could never seem to beat the Toronto Maple Leafs in the post-season, but managed to get to the Eastern Conference final in 2003 and the Stanley Cup final in 2007, years they managed to avoid their nemesis.
You could point to the lack of production from their star players, a power play that kind of went limp after Game 1 and an inability to hold leads, but it wasn’t as though the Rangers' big guns were producing, either. The Rangers scored three power-play goals in seven games, the Capitals just one. It wasn’t Rick Nash or Martin St-Louis or Derick Brassard who won the series for the Rangers, it was guys like Ryan McDonagh, Chris Kreider and Jesper Fast.
And the Capitals have to give credit to the best goalie in the world, one of the best money goalies the game has ever seen. Lundqvist did the near impossible and managed to outplay Braden Holtby in this series. Alex Ovechkin, who had such a wonderful season and boldly predicted the Capitals would win Game 7, has no reason to hang his head this time. He had trouble scoring, but it was not for a lack of effort in Game 7 and he turned in probably the best two-way hockey and most inspired effort of his career, even in defeat.
So where do the star-crossed and cursed Capitals go from here? What do they do to make this right? Well, probably not much. They’ve changed their GM and that has turned out great, with the lone exception of trading a second- and third-round pick at the deadline for a player who turned out to be a healthy scratch in the playoffs. They’ve got a coach who has been able to get his players to truly buy into his system. They’ve got their goaltender and should be able to keep him, even though he becomes a restricted free agent July 1. Their top four defense is set and does not include Mike Green, who almost certainly will not be re-signed and become a free agent.
The Capitals have some terrific young talent in the likes of Evgeny Kuznetsov, who can score, and Tom Wilson, who hits to hurt. And consider that Andre Burakovsky could have still been Connor McDavid’s linemate this season and been playing for an OHL championship and you’ve got a young player who will be all the more ready for the grind of the playoffs the next time around. They have some good, but not great, prospects on the way, but can afford to take their time with the likes of defenseman Madison Bowey and left winger Jakub Vrana.
In years previous when the Capitals exited from the playoffs, or in the case of last season didn’t even make the playoffs, it has always been under a dark cloud. There’s always been this feeling that the team underachieved and that it always needed something more to get it over the hump.
You don’t seem to get that feeling this time. The Capitals still can’t seem to get over their Game 7 problems, can’t get to a conference final and can’t seem to play long enough to keep Ovechkin from playing for his country in the World Championship. But one of the first things coach Barry Trotz said after the Capitals lost to the Rangers was that his team would learn from its defeat and would be back better.
For the first time in years, someone predicting better things for the Capitals has a legion of believers instead of doubters.