In the moments after the Capitals’ season was over Friday, after handshakes were done and only disappointment remained, Alex Ovechkin slowly skated near the benches and gave his stick to the crowd. So much of Washington’s campaign had been about the Russian — from the 36-year-old’s scoring pursuit to the controversy over his support of Vladimir Putin — but now, Ovechkin was the last player off the ice.
The reality quickly set in: Washington’s 4-3 overtime loss to the Florida Panthers officially marked the fourth straight season that the Capitals failed to advance out of the first round. This series may have been the most painful for Washington’s players in that span given how winnable it seemed. The Capitals held leads over the last three games — and lost each of them.
In 2018, Ovechkin celebrated the end of his season by drinking out of the Stanley Cup at the Georgetown Waterfront. Four years later, there was no party in sight Friday as Ovechkin sat to answer questions such as whether Washington’s veteran core was still capable of winning deep into the playoffs.
“Kinda (messed) up situation,” Ovechkin said of the Capitals’ recent playoff struggles.
The Capitals have heard and answered these questions before. They faced them regularly before winning a championship — a title that bought them an amount of goodwill from fans, even as they were bounced from the playoffs by the Carolina Hurricanes, New York Islanders and Boston Bruins before this.
But Washington can’t escape them now. Not with their inability to close out games. Not with Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and T.J. Oshie in their mid-30s.
So, pardon the repetition, but are we sure this core still has it in them?
“If you’ve been there before, you know what it takes,” Backstrom said. “To answer your question, yes, I think so. But obviously the margins are very small out there. It doesn’t take a lot to make mistakes out there. That’s just sports in general I think.”
Ovechkin and Backstrom both focused on how the Capitals weren’t able to finish against the Panthers. Friday’s Game 6 was a microcosm of Washington’s problems. The Capitals took a 2-1 lead just 1:37 into the third, but Florida again stormed back with two goals of its own. Washington was even slightly more than a minute away from losing in regulation, but a 6-on-4 powerplay resulted in an Oshie goal with 1:03 left to tie the contest.
Despite the push to force the game to overtime, the Capitals lost because they were unable to contain the Panther that had bothered them all series. Florida center Carter Verhaeghe snuck one past Capitals goaltender Ilya Samsonov after receiving the pass from Claude Giroux. The score was Verhaeghe’s sixth goal in the last six games — and so of course he was going to be the one to finish Washington off.
To recap, the Panthers — “the Comeback Cats” as they’ve been dubbed — won after trailing with slightly more than two minutes left in Game 4, scored five unanswered in Game 5 after being down 3-0 and stole another one from the Capitals in Game 6. Florida posted the best regular-season record, but few expected the Capitals to lose quite like this.
“We had a lot of time where the series was in our hands,” Capitals defenseman John Carlson said. “And I think that stings even more, especially right now.”
Tough decisions will likely have to be made. What should the Capitals, for instance, do at goaltender? Washington alternated between Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek over the course of the regular season, but neither was outright dominant in the playoffs. Samsonov performed better of the two, though his contract is up. Both goalies are set to be restricted free agents, but can Washington find an upgrade?
General manager Brian MacLellan will also likely have to determine if Washington’s core is worth shaking up — or at least, tweaking. According to Cap Friendly, the Capitals are projected to have almost $9 million in salary-cap space this upcoming offseason. The team has six players from their playoff roster with at least three more years on their contract in Ovechkin, Backstrom, Carlson, Oshie, Nic Dowd and Evgeny Kuznetsov. Only Kuznetsov is younger than 30, but that changes in a matter of days (his 30th birthday is May 19).
Making matters tougher to evaluate, Washington’s core played relatively well when just looking at individual stats. Sure, Ovechkin only had one goal in the series — not great given his 50 in the regular season — but he was active with five assists and 30 hits. Oshie led the Capitals with six goals. Backstrom (six points) and Kuznetsov (five points) found ways to contribute, too.
But this could very well be a turning point for the Capitals. This was a type of series defeat that Washington’s brass can’t just blame on the absence of winger Tom Wilson, who missed the last five games due to injury. Washington was able to push the Presidents’ Trophy winner, but still didn’t get the job done.
“We have it, but we just blow it away,” Ovechkin said. “It is on us. It is on me, on Backy, on Osh, on Carly. It is on everybody.”