- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 11, 2016

PITTSBURGH — If there’s anything that the Washington Capitals‘ latest second-round playoff loss has shown, besides the inherent flaw in the three-year-old Stanley Cup Playoffs format, it’s how difficult winning a championship can be.

The Capitals mowed through the regular season, claiming the Presidents' Trophy before any other Eastern Conference team had qualified for the playoffs, and ended up drawing the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round — a team that had won 24 games since the all-star break, more than any other in its conference.

One Canadian media outlet hyped the playoff series as potentially being the best ever before it began, and on Tuesday night, the Penguins ultimately prevailed, advancing in just six games with a 4-3 victory in an overtime thriller.

That meant the Capitals fell in the second round for the third time in five seasons — a stage they have not moved past since reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 1998. It also made them the latest No. 1 overall seed to fail to win it all. Since a lockout erased the 2004-05 season, only two of the 11 teams with the best record during the regular season took home the title.

“[If] you look back, we got off to a tremendous start, and we carried it pretty consistently through the 82 games,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said no more than an hour after his team was eliminated. “If you think about it, we won one game a month more than most teams in the National Hockey League. … It’s all about momentum. [The Penguins] hit it at the right time and they played very well.”

Reasons for the Capitals‘ loss were, understandably, hard to find on Tuesday night, with right wing Justin Williams noting that the “time for dissection is in the coming weeks and months.” Still, a team that general manager Brian MacLellan said before the first round began was built for the playoffs experienced a number of significant flaws.

For one, the Capitals failed to generate production from their second line — most notably center Evgeny Kuznetsov, who finished with 20 goals and 57 assists for a team-high 77 points but had one power-play goal and one assist in the playoffs and did not score at even strength in his final 32 games.

They were also a victim of their lack of depth on defense, even though that was their stated reason for acquiring Mike Weber via trade at the deadline in late February. Trotz scratched Weber, Taylor Chorney, Nate Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov for mistakes at different points in the postseason, then returned them to the lineup when someone else struggled.

Even the reliable defensemen battled issues. Brooks Orpik missed three games with a concussion and three others with a suspension, and Karl Alzner sustained a groin injury in the first-round series against the Philadelphia Flyers that got so bad, he played just 5:16 on Tuesday and not again after the opening minutes of the second period.

Most significantly, the Capitals ran into a team that may very well end up being the Stanley Cup champions. After taking over following the firing of Mike Johnston on Dec. 12, new coach Mike Sullivan emphasized a speed and skill game that accentuated his players’ talents, earning their trust and getting them to buy in.

Matt Murray, a 21-year-old rookie who took over as the top goaltender in late March because of injury, has a 2.40 goals-against average and .926 save percentage in the playoffs. In coming years, his name will be linked with that of Jaroslav Halak, who foiled the Capitals in the playoffs in 2010, the last time they won the Presidents' Trophy.

The Capitals are unlikely to retool much for next year — only Weber, left wing Jason Chimera and center Mike Richards are unrestricted free agents — which could leave them one more chance to chase a title.

“Every year, lots of expectations, lots of great players, but something missing,” left wing Alex Ovechkin said. “This group of guys can do better and bigger than just the second round. We have the best goalie in the league, we have a solid group of guys on the defensive side, all four lines can play well. You can see it. We just didn’t execute when we had a chance to put the puck in the net.”

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