- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 12, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Before the Washington Capitals played an important game against the New York Rangers on Saturday that would have guaranteed a home-ice advantage in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs against the New York Islanders (they lost, though they would wind up with the advantage with an Islanders shootout loss that night), they had a celebration of sorts.

In a pre-game ceremony on the ice on Fan Appreciation Day, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom joined Capitals owner Ted Leonsis and general manager Brian MacLellan for a presentation of jerseys honoring their recent milestones.

Ovechkin was presented with two framed jerseys with Nos. 473 and 826 — the 473 representing the new franchise record for career goals earlier in the week he set against Montreal, surpassing Peter Bondra. He has since added two more since then, so keep those jerseys coming.

The other jersey, the one with 826, represented Ovechkin overtaking Bondra’s career points total mark.

Backstrom’s jersey, No. 419, notes the moment last month when Backstrom passed Michal Pivonka as the team’s all-time assist leader. He finished the season with 427 career assists.

Here is the jersey that was missing, though: Stanley Cups 000.

It may have been a celebration of the accomplishments of Ovechkin and Backstrom, but it was more of an indictment of what this franchise has not accomplished with two of its greatest players on the roster. And the numbers represented sands in an hour glass, as time passes by in the Ovechkin-Backstrom era, illustrating the failure of the franchise to capitalize on the presence of such a great tandem.

We’ve gone from the presence of promise to the expectation of disappointment, and fans are left basking in the glow of Ovechkin and Backstrom’s impressive, historic numbers.

The question is no longer what this franchise will do with Ovechkin and Backstrom. It is, Will they ever do it?

It’s been 10 years since the Russian star descended on the capital of the free world and changed hockey in Washington, with the Swedish Sundance Kid arriving two years later. The numbers — like 473, 826 and 419 — continue to pile up. This season Ovechkin scored 53 goals, his third-highest career total, and a franchise-record 25 power-play goals. Backstrom had his 60th assist, the second consecutive year and the fourth time he has had 60 or more assists in a season.

Yet the numbers have the “but” asterisk attached to them — every goal, every assist.

All those numbers, and not one appearance in the Eastern Conference finals.
It hangs over this group of players like an old Southeast Division championship banner. And a win over the Islanders in the first round won’t change that. It will just mean the Capitals have gotten past the “embarrassment” round. No, it’s going to take a second-round playoff series win to reach the “accomplishment” round — the Eastern Conference finals.

The franchise is counting on coach Barry Trotz — the first coach brought in for Ovechkin and Backstrom with Stanley Cup coaching experience — to help the dynamic duo fulfill expectations and take them someplace they have never been before in their National Hockey League careers.

The problem is, in 50 Stanley Cup playoff games, Trotz has never been there, either.

In the 15 years Trotz coached in Nashville, his teams never made it past the second round, either. He has a postseason coaching record of 19-31.

We knew this already, though. We knew it the day the Capitals hired him. It simmered below the surface all season long as Trotz did a terrific job his first season in Washington, molding a team that appears to play a more well-rounded game than past Capitals failures have.

“I’ve gone into the playoffs a few times overwhelming underdogs,” Trotz said. “I’ve gone into the playoffs maybe a little bit of a favorite. This team I would probably feel like we’re going in even with everybody that’s in the playoffs. I feel like if we play our game and we have the right mentality and the right focus, then we can go head-to-head with the best in the league.”

Coach, when you’re with the Washington Capitals and you are in the Stanley Cup playoffs, you are a perennial underdog, carrying the burden of expectations past and greatness unfulfilled.

• Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 and espn980.com.


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