- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 15, 2016

Another second-round playoff loss has come and gone for the Washington Capitals, who believed they were closer to winning the Stanley Cup than they had ever been. In many regards, they were right — the regular-season dominance and the number of individual and team records set demonstrated a level of success unseen in the franchise’s previous 41 seasons.

If they hope to finally win it all, though, there are a few areas they’ll need to tweak and address prior to the start of the next postseason. How well they collectively do those things will greatly influence whether they’re still playing a year from now.

Ratchet up the speed

The Capitals believed that their size and willingness to play a punishing, heavy game would take a toll on the more fleet-footed Penguins, but they were surprised to learn just how fresh their opponents’ legs were over the course of the series. Coach Barry Trotz took note of this and said last week, after the series had ended, that finding a way to increase the pace of the game is “something that we’re really going to talk about.”

Doing so will be tough, given that nearly everyone is expected to return, Washington won’t have much salary cap space to make major additions and Jason Chimera, one of the team’s fastest players, is 37 with an expiring contract. The solution, Trotz said, may then be to find other ways to create space off breakouts and in the transition game to “look a lot faster” — which could then prevent the Capitals from getting away from the style of play that got them as far as it did.

Fortify the defense

After watching the New York Islanders’ defensive corps get decimated before and during the teams’ first-round series in 2015, the Capitals recognized how fragile a team’s postseason hopes can be if replacements aren’t ready. During the season, they believed they had addressed that area, given the way the defense played during the simultaneous losses of Brooks Orpik and John Carlson, and they added Mike Weber at the trade deadline as insurance, giving them eight players.

That didn’t matter. Orpik missed three games as he recovered from a concussion and three more because of a suspension. Karl Alzner injured a groin in the first round and couldn’t finish Game 6 against the Penguins. Weber, Dmitry Orlov, Nate Schmidt and Taylor Chorney were all benched at one point in the playoffs, creating a revolving door in the bottom pair, forcing Carlson and Matt Niskanen to each play more than 26 minutes a game.

Weber’s contract will expire in July, Orlov is set to become an unrestricted free agent and Orpik will be 36 when the regular season begins. There’s not much immediate help looming in the minor leagues. A trade could be an answer.

Take shots and crash the net

Three players praised for their grittiness — Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward and Eric Fehr — all left Washington last summer, and the Capitals didn’t add anyone who could make up for their net-front contributions. The deficiency was glaring when players such as Chris Kuntz, Patric Hornqvist and, of course, Nick Bonino scored for the Penguins in the second round, pouncing on rebounds and screening goaltender Braden Holtby.

Again, the Capitals‘ ability to add a player with those skills appears unlikely, so a tactical shift may be needed. The Capitals struggled to put pucks on net all series, and T.J. Oshie was direct when he addressed a needed resolve during the Pittsburgh series, saying, “You’ve just got to keep fighting through and take a couple extra bruises to find your way in front.”

Develop a ‘killer instinct’

One of the first things Trotz diagnosed upon taking over as the Capitals‘ coach in May 2014 was that the players appeared timid when trying to protect a lead. Thus, he had preached for the better part of the past two years about seizing opportunities when presented, which remained a challenge.

Look no further than Game 2 against the Penguins, when players said afterward they didn’t start the game with the desperation they needed in a 2-1 loss. They had, on several occasions, recovered to win a game in which they trailed during the regular season and were lulled into security in the playoffs. A two-game advantage to start that series, instead of a split, would have certainly helped the Capitals‘ fortunes.

Recognize the moment

Next year may be the last opportunity for a number of players to win a title with the Capitals, owing to the number of contracts set to expire following that season. If the team’s long-time core — which has shrunk greatly in recent years — hopes to win it all together, it truly will be Stanley Cup or bust in 2017.

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