- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 25, 2019

The Washington Capitals’ summer has commenced much, much earlier than it did a year ago. Brooks Orpik couldn’t quite explain how weird that felt to him.

“That’s probably a better question for a couple of days from now,” he said after Wednesday’s Game 7 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes.

Since the last time the franchise missed the playoffs in the 2013-14 season, the Capitals have won at least one postseason series each year. The second round, not the first, was always their bugaboo until they finally claimed their first Stanley Cup last June.

So this first-round playoff exit — served to them Wednesday at 11:30 p.m. with a Hurricanes’ double-overtime goal — came as both a disappointment to the fan base and a shock to the players.

“We didn’t envision this happening,” goaltender Braden Holtby said, “so I don’t know. It’s tough right now.”

Had it not been for the 2018 Stanley Cup, this season’s early exit would have been deemed not merely disappointing, but unacceptable. Alex Ovechkin’s legacy could still be tarnished by a disastrous postseason record. With Ovechkin and certain other key players aging, murmurs about the need for a rebuild might have bubbled up in this alternate reality.

Instead of facing those old existential questions, the Capitals — like many other elite teams in these playoffs — will head off quietly into the summer sun, wondering what could have been.

“You saw across the league: Winnipeg, Vegas, Tampa, Pittsburgh,” Orpik said, rattling off strong teams that were knocked out even before Washington. “There are teams that everyone expects to at least get past the first round, and it’s probably a good reminder and indication on how tough it is to not only win one round, but do what we did last year. I don’t think anyone in here took that for granted.”

Todd Reirden, wrapping up his first season as an NHL head coach, looked as blankly stunned as his players did but said he was “extremely proud” of them.

“They battled right till the end, left it all out there, absolutely,” he said. “Our top guys were great leaders through the whole process of defending the championship and everything that went into it. You know, we came up short of our goal, and that’s disappointing.”

The Capitals returned most of the same squad that last year defeated the Blue Jackets, Penguins, Lightning and Golden Knights, coming from behind at some point in every series to win.

They enjoyed a good run of team health for a few months, until March, when defenseman Michal Kempny’s hamstring tore during a fight. In Game 4 at Carolina, T.J. Oshie was shoved into the boards and broke his clavicle and did not play again. It’s fair to wonder how a Capitals team at 100 percent health would have fared.

“You start to see how important it is to have certain players (who were) not in your lineup,” Reirden said. “Not making any excuses of it, but a guy like T.J. Oshie and a guy like Michal Kempny who’s a top-four D-man, maybe we come out of our D-zone a little bit better. That’s the game and it’s a war of attrition a lot, and getting some breaks and getting through injuries.”

But don’t tell that to Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour, a first-year coach like Reirden. Throughout the series, Brind’Amour made it known that he felt his team was missing more of its key players than the Capitals. The Hurricanes took down Washington despite missing top-six wingers Micheal Ferland and star rookie Andrei Svechnikov for the last four games.

For Washington, the series itself won’t be remembered by the injuries, but by the Capitals’ lost opportunities and mental errors that put themselves in bad spots despite leading the series at two different points.

“All series long it was a game of mistakes,” Orpik said. “I don’t know if we necessarily made more mistakes, but it just kind of seemed like it.”

• Adam Zielonka can be reached at azielonka@washingtontimes.com.

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