ARLINGTON, Va. — From his perch behind the lectern at the Washington Capitals’ practice facility, after a brief conversational detour about the delectability of German beer, Evgeny Kuznetsov surveyed the small sea of surrounding reporters and reached a conclusion. “Come on,” he said, “you stand here like somebody died. I can be mad. But not you.”
If anything, the cues had come from the cadre of Capitals who emerged, one by one, to conduct the postmortem on their latest crushing disappointment. The rink was eerily quiet Friday morning, save the distant sounds of sticks being bundled into bags for another early summer, and the soft words of those endeavoring to explain what—again—went so wrong so soon.
Some 50-plus hours prior, Washington had hosted Pittsburgh in Game 7 of the second round, the franchise’s first berth in the conference finals this century at stake. After taking two straight from the defending Stanley Cup champions—including a 5-2 blitzing at PPG Paints Arena to set up the winner-take-all—the Capitals seemed poised for some slaying of demons. Instead, for the most dominant regular-season team in recent memory, the period since that 2-0 loss had taken on a funereal tone, with maybe a few hefeweizen pints slugged back in solace.
“I think everybody’s in shock,” said captain Alex Ovechkin.
“You know, it sucks,” winger Marcus Johansson said.
“I doubt I'll be done processing it for a long time,” winger Justin Williams said. “This one has been the hardest I've had to take.”
“You know, my mind's been going in a million different directions,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “But it still hasn't completely sunk in.”
“It’s been terrible,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “Every time that I think about it, it’s not feeling great. I’m just frustrated.”
“It’s a matter of just trying to process kind of, the hurt again, I guess,” center Jay Beagle said. “I don’t know. Is that an answer? I don’t even know.”
“It's just a weird feeling right now and there's been no clarity,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “A few people asked me if I was paying attention to them, just because it's just weird. It's definitely the weirdest feeling we've ever had because I think this was the most realistic chance of winning that we've had. Guys are still trying to just figure it all out."
“There was a lot of silence,” winger T.J. Oshie said. “Some reflecting, some things that it'd be just between us. But I think we're all shocked, disappointed, let down. And the list goes on."
“Put it this way,” coach Barry Trotz said, “I haven’t slept for two friggin’ days.”
The afternoon following Game 7, several Capitals players went for lunch near their northern Virginia homes. Spying the group from across the restaurant, a fan approached and tried making chitchat—about the regular season, in which Washington capture its second straight Presidents’ Trophy; and of course the playoffs, which had just ended in the second round for the third straight season under Trotz. So shell-shocked were the players, still, that one of them recalled mustering only a single word in response: “Sorry.”
By the next day, when the team convened for its exit meetings at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, there weren’t many more answers to be found. Last spring, Washington ran into a buzzsaw in the form of the Penguins, rejuvenated thanks to a midseason coaching change and led by the HBK Line, and got bounced in six games. “They felt invincible,” said defenseman Brooks Orpik. “I think they were by far the best team. This year, I think guys felt that we were the better team, so I think that's probably why it stings a little bit more.”
Except Washington wasn’t the best team, at least not in Game 7. The Capitals no-showed during the third period, managing only six shots on goal altogether against netminder Marc-Andre Fleury and a bloodied Pittsburgh blue line missing both Kris Letang and Trevor Daley. Over the past five years, only three squads have been shut out in a Game 7 at home; two of those occurred at Verizon Center in downtown D.C.
“We just didn’t score,” defenseman Nate Schmidt said. “I think that’s the answer. You have a Game 7, at home, you have a chance. And you don’t play well, you don’t even put one on the scoreboard. We didn’t convert on our chances, and they did. That’s as black-and-white as you can put it, whether or not some guys could’ve had opportunities, that’s what it came down to.”
And yet the near future promises much uncertainty. Five lineup regulars will enter unrestricted free agency on July 1: Oshie, Alzner, Williams, defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk and fourth-liner Daniel Winnik. Six more—Kuznetsov, Schmidt, defenseman Dmitry Orlov, forwards Andre Burakovsky and Brett Connolly, and backup goalie Philipp Grubauer—will become restricted free agents. Some measure of turnover was always inevitable, regardless of how the postseason ended. Now, rather than wondering what exactly will change, the Capitals must ask themselves, how much?
“That's the million dollar question, ain't it?” Niskanen said. “I don't have a good answer for you. I don't know. There's gonna be some people that change. How much is yet to be decided, and that's not my decision to make, thankfully.”
That burden will fall onto general manager Brian MacLellan, who has developed a Ruthian reputation for calling his shot. Upon assuming the job in May 2014, MacLellan declared that Washington needed to upgrade its blue line and promptly shelled out $67.75 million to Orpik and Niskanen. Targeting the right side of the Capitals’ forwards corps in 2015, he landed both Oshie and Williams within 24 hours; last summer’s proclaimed quest for a third-line center netted Lars Eller during the NHL draft.
As the kids might say, MacLellan has proven himself all ‘bout that action. "He goes out there and does what it takes,” Alzner said. “It doesn't seem to faze him whether he needs to go make a couple big signings or if he needs to move somebody I'm sure he's willing to do that. That's kind of what we've seen. He wants to win as bad as anybody. He's shown that he's ready to make those tough decisions if necessary."
MacLellan did not speak publicly Friday, meeting instead with players behind the scenes, but is expected to face reporters next week. Among the questions: If Oshie and Williams indeed head elsewhere, what will become of their vacated spots in the top-six? Once Kuznetsov, Burakovsky, Schmidt and Orlov receive their due raises, how much space against the salary cap will remain for additional improvements? And with Trotz’s contract expiring after ‘17-18, where do things stand with him and his staff, which hasn’t changed since it was assembled alongside MacLellan’s ascension?
Then there are the abstract issues. Several players suggested that Washington mentally folded against the Penguins, and their declarations weren’t exactly subtle. “I think once we got down 1-0, you kind of almost felt it,” Oshie said. “The building kind of got quiet, we kind of got quiet.”
“You can feel it,” said Shattenkirk, whose trade-deadline arrival gave him somewhat of an objective outlook on this city’s pain. “Of course you can feel it. It’s everywhere surrounding this team. It’s media, it’s the fan, it’s the players. The tough part is that I don’t think there’s ever been many years where Washington has been considered a team that doesn’t have a chance to win. They’re contenders every year. In my mind, that’s a blessing.”
He’s correct about this, of course. Since Ovechkin burst into the NHL in a blaze of one-timers, followed shortly thereafter by Backstrom and his smooth saucer passes, the Capitals have only missed the playoffs once over the past decade. And yet, Alzner said, “You can only get to the second round so many times before you have to think that something needs to be changed.... I thought that he had done everything right and we had done everything right. But we still didn't. You've got to go back to the drawing board, I think."
On paper, Washington had everything: the deepest group of forwards in the Ovechkin era; three formidable right-shot defensemen in Niskanen, Shattenkirk and John Carlson; goalie Braden Holtby, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner; and home ice in Game 7 after overcoming a 3-1 series deficit against its personal tormentors. The redemption narrative was there, ladled onto a platter. The Cavaliers had done it. The Cubs had done it. The Capitals believed they were next.
“You write what you want because we failed,” Williams said. “At the end of the day, that's really all that matters in our business. We didn't get the job when we knew we could and we thought we could and we assumed we could. It is what it is. You've got to own and look at the camera and say, 'I didn't do enough,' and I'm sure everyone is doing that.”