Will the last Washington Capitals player leaving the ice please make sure he closes that Stanley Cup window? Just leave it open a crack, please.
If we are to believe Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan, that window has one year left, more or less — one more year of the pain of great expectations followed by greater disappointment, like what Capitals fans are experiencing now after their team went out in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs to the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games of the best-of-seven series.
Then, maybe, Capitals fans can be free, and truly finally enjoy those regular season highlights.
“I view it as a two-year window,” MacLellan told reporters in February. “We’re going for it this year, we’re going for it next year, and then after that we’re evaluating where we’re at.”
Where will we be then? Year 12 of the Alex Ovechkin era and watching another window slowly shut as well, according to Capitals coach Barry Trotz.
“Your shelf life in the National Hockey League, if you’re a top player, is 10, 12 years,” Trotz said. “And so, when you don’t go that far, the window sort of seems like it closes, and if you haven’t gotten past that, it gets frustrating. It does. There’s no question. The sense of mortality sets in.”
Mortality — and regrets.
Regrets about wasted opportunities.
Regrets about not playing harder.
Regrets about not trying.
That’s the story of the Capitals’ 2016 Stanley Cup exhibition. Losing this series to Pittsburgh wasn’t a collapse. It wasn’t a choke job.
No, this was worse.
The best team in the NHL this season just didn’t play hard enough — didn’t try hard enough.
You don’t believe me? Ask the players themselves.
“I don’t think we had enough desperation,” Nate Schmidt said after their Game 2 loss to Pittsburgh. “We had some penalties, and it’s hard to get momentum going then, but we have to come out desperate from the drop of the puck.”
“We were getting embarrassed out there,” Justin Williams said after that Game 2 loss.
“I don’t think we were as urgent on the puck,” Trotz said.
And the one that perhaps defines the Capitals are the words from veteran Nicklas Backstrom — who has been through all the playoff failures of the Ovechkin era.
“We have to come out harder and have to show more desperation, especially against this kind of team,” he said after the Game 2 loss to the Penguins. “I don’t know, maybe we get a little passive with a 1-0 lead in the series.”
Desperation. Urgent. Passive. Unless these are technical hockey terms that I’m not aware of, the bottom line meaning of all of this is they didn’t try hard enough — didn’t play hard enough.
This is the worst of them all.
Where does that come from? The leadership in the locker room? We all believed the Capitals imported some quality leadership in Williams, T.J. Oshie and others, and we’ve all heard how Ovechkin has matured as a leader — as the captain.
Yet their teammates failed to respond in the most important times. It took the Penguins playing with one hand behind their back in Game 6 — three consecutive delay-of-game penalties, creating two five-on-three advantages for Washington — for the Capitals to show enough life to tie the score at 3-3. Then came the overtime, where the Capitals save their best lack of urgency and desperation when it counted the most. It ended quickly, 4-3.
Where does that come from? The coach? Barry Trotz’s “Mr. Rogers” act is starting to grow stale.
“We’ve made some progress, but obviously, not enough,” he said. “We need to get through this round. That’s part of the deal.”
Progress? Trotz’s team got just as far as Bruce Boudreau’s Capitals, Dale Hunter’s team — and no farther than any of the Nashville Predators teams Trotz coached. Nine career coaching playoff shots and none that got past the second round.
Then again, progress may mean something else to the Capitals than it does to me. Maybe desperation and urgency does as well.