Wearing a black ballcap, a black sweatshirt and dark jeans, it wouldn’t have been wrong to suggest that Matt Niskanen was dressed appropriately.
It had been 36 hours since the Washington Capitals’ loss, but Niskanen knew the sorry and disappointment would last much longer.
“This is the most hurt I’ve been in my career,” Niskanen said on Thursday morning, not even two days after the Capitals were knocked out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs by the Pittsburgh Penguins. “You don’t know how often opportunities are going to come along where you have this kind of team.”
The Capitals won a franchise-record 56 games in the regular season and finished with the best record in the NHL, giving them the Presidents’ Trophy and home-ice advantage throughout the postseason.
It wasn’t much help, as Washington was eliminated in the second round for the third time in five years on Tuesday following a 4-3 overtime loss in Game 6 in Pittsburgh.
The deciding game in the best-of-seven series was scheduled for Thursday night — a thought that wasn’t lost on Alex Ovechkin. When asked about leaving Washington for Russia, where he will join his home country’s team in the ongoing IIHF World Championships, he looked up to the scoreboard hanging over center ice.
“Right now, I’d rather stay here and play for Game 7 [and] stay with you guys right now and just to be in a meeting,” Ovechkin said. “Finish up the meeting right now and have some lunch and go home and sleep.”
A number of things went wrong for the Capitals during the postseason, with defenseman Brooks Orpik suggesting that the team “peaked at the wrong time.”
Washington won the Presidents’ Trophy in late March, before any other team in the Eastern Conference clinched a playoff berth, and had four winning streaks of more than five games during the regular season.
“Listen — it was a failure,” right wing Justin Williams said. “I’m not going to beat around the bush. I came here to try and help this team win, and we didn’t do it. People will be upset about that, calling it a failure, but there’s only one team that gets to finish their season with a win, and we weren’t it this year, so I consider it a failure in that aspect.”
General manager Brian MacLellan said near the end of the regular season that he viewed the Capitals as having a two-year window in which they could win the Stanley Cup, owing to the fact that an overwhelming number of players are under contract for next season.
Jason Chimera, the third-line left wing for nearly the entire season, is the only one with the team all season whose contract is set to expire. Center Mike Richards and defenseman Mike Weber, midseason acquisitions, will also become unrestricted free agents; Marcus Johansson, Tom Wilson, Dmitry Orlov and Michael Latta are restricted free agents, making it likely that they all return next year unless Washington chooses to not offer them a contract.
Coach Barry Trotz said that he figures general manager Brian MacLellan will evaluate those under the team’s control first, then spend any remaining money trying to keep the others or add outside pieces.
One area the Capitals may look to enhance with their limited salary cap room is their team speed. They believed they’d be able to go toe-to-toe with the Penguins’ puck-movers during the playoff series, but instead found it difficult to keep up.
“There’s a little more risk to that — and there’s some reward — but we’ll look at that,” Trotz said. “We’ll look at personnel, no question, but I think we have good elements of being fast.”
A number of players were recognized for their performance during the season, either by reaching milestones or being nominated for awards. Ovechkin scored 50 goals for the seventh time and is the league leader in goals scored by a Russian player, Braden Holtby tied a record for the most wins in a season and is a finalist for the Vezina Trophy and Ted Linsday Award, and Trotz is among those in contention for the Jack Adams Award.
Those things, though, pale in comparison to the hardware the Capitals hoped to take home next month. Niskanen said that he was proud of the team’s approach, attitude and work ethic, but the chance to chase a championship with the same core next year may be the only silver lining of the failed playoff run.
“It sucks,” Niskanen said. “I can’t believe we’re talking about this right now, because that sounds like a loser’s mentality — ‘Well, we’ll get them next year!’ — but that’s really all you can do at this point.”