The coroner is in. Let’s dissect what downed the Washington Capitals.
The skinny: The dark magic that helped Braden Holtby channel prime Dominik Hasek and help get the Caps their first Stanley Cup in 2018 came with a price. Three years later, the championship window seems to have slammed shut. This elimination marks Washington’s third straight first-round exit since the Cup win, with each performance looking more lifeless than the last.
This year, the Capitals fell victim to the Boston Bruins, a team that seemed to solve its own standard issues and stabilized their goaltending. After a Game 1 OT victory, the Capitals fell apart and lost four straight to be sent packing. But what caused this group to endure such a cruel fate? I can think of three good reasons.
Mistakes: This is the big one. Teams can’t afford to make careless errors in the playoffs, but the Capitals did it three times in this series. Let’s run through the big mistake in three particular games, with each one turning the tide in Boston’s favor.
Game 2: After allowing a Taylor Hall goal late in the third period to force overtime, Brenden Dillon’s clearing attempt was intercepted by David Krejci. Two passes later, and the puck come from Brad Marchand’s stick past Craig Anderson to give the Bruins the overtime win.
Game 3: The mistake to end all mistakes. A miscommunication between Ilya Samsonov and Justin Schultz left the puck behind the Capitals’ net. The puck ended up being intercepted by Craig Smith, whose wraparound shot slipped under Samsonov to give the Bruins a double-overtime win (and give Samsonov and/or Schultz a tongue-lashing at the hands of Alex Ovechkin).
Game 4: In the second period of a scoreless game, Dmitry Orlov makes a bad hit on Kevan Miller that takes Miller out of the series and puts the Bruins on the power play. Brad Marchand takes full advantage and gets the Bruins on the board, giving the Bruins a lead they would never give up.
Even one of these mental lapses would be difficult to justify, but having all three happen in the span of three pivotal games is inexcusable. Series can be lost due to self-inflicted wounds, and that’s exactly what happened in Washington’s case.
Scoring: This one’s a strange one, as the Capitals made their money with offensive talent only to see it dry up here. Both of Alex Ovechkin’s goals came on the power play. Tom Wilson was the only one of Washington’s top-six forwards to score a goal at even strength. John Carlson and trade deadline acquisition Anthony Mantha each got two assists, Nicklas Backstrom only mustered one assist, and Evgeny Kuznetsov didn’t even show up on the scoresheet throughout the series. Depth pieces like Garnet Hathaway and Nic Dowd tried their best to pick up the slack with two goals apiece, but it ultimately wasn’t enough to balance out the struggles of Washington’s stars.
Age: Look through the Capitals’ roster, if you want. You would find a very telling stat about the makeup of this team. In the regular lineup for the Capitals in this series, there were only five players who were 26 or younger (Wilson, Mantha, Daniel Sprong, Samsonov, and Vitek Vanecek, who was injured in Game 1 and never returned). By comparison, 12 of the Capitals’ regular players were 30 or older. In an already-compacted season, it was apparent that the Capitals ran out of gas. Players were missing time late in the season due to injuries, and several of the Capitals’ older players never quite reached 100 percent in time.
The crystal ball: The primary point of focus will obviously be on Ovechkin. After signing a 13-year deal in 2008, Ovechkin has a chance to hit the open market. That appears doubtful, however, as reports have shown that Ovechkin wants to retire as a Washington Capital, or at least end his career in North America there. Expect a short-team deal, although we’ll see if it comes with a small discount to give the Capitals some financial flexibility.
With the lack of cap space and big contracts the Capitals have on their roster, it appears on the surface like the Capitals are stuck with their current roster. If the Capitals want to at least try to keep the window open, however, that cannot be the case. The Capitals should see if they can pursue a trade for Kuznetsov, who is coming off the worst offensive season of his career and is stuck behind Backstrom as Washington’s second-line center. A team looking for center depth could do far worse, as Kuznetsov just hit 29 and endured a couple stints on the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol list. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Another key fixture of the Capitals that could be playing elsewhere is T.J. Oshie, and one potential suitor is at the forefront: Seattle. With Oshie hitting 35 this season and on a contract that keeps him locked in for four years, he might require a sweetener for Ron Francis to take him off Washington’s hands. That said, he’s proven that he still has some touch and leadership ability, making him a decent choice to be Seattle’s first-ever captain. If taking Oshie’s contract is too much to ask, Orlov could make for a good second option to keep Seattle off of the likely-to-be exposed Vanecek and give Seattle one half of their top defensive pairing for their first year.