Three years ago Monday, the Washington Capitals organization was busy with scouting reports and travel itineraries for the Stanley Cup Finals, the day after Alex Ovechkin and company wrapped up the Eastern Conference Final over Tampa Bay.
The Capitals, of course, dispatched the upstart Vegas Golden Knights in five games, earned an elusive Stanley Cup title and celebrated like few champions had before.
Three years later, that championship run is beginning to feel like a distant memory — the Caps haven’t won a playoff series since, most recently dropping their first-round series to the Boston Bruins on Sunday.
“Obviously, we play all season long for it, playing for a Stanley Cup,” Ovechkin said soon after his 16th NHL season came to an end. “It’s hard to lose. Nobody wants to lose, right? We try do best what we can. Obviously, we can do better. It sucks. It’s a bad feeling when you know you have a pretty good team.”
The Capitals were in fact a very good team for much of the regular season. Between Feb. 16 and March 29, the Capitals were a league-best 17-3-1.
But as the Capitals inched closer to the playoffs, the NHL’s oldest roster was hampered by injuries and COVID-related absences. At one point in their penultimate game of the regular season, Washington’s entire No. 1 power play — Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov and John Carlson — was unavailable.
While most teams with aspirations of a deep postseason run can use the final few games of the regular-season to fine-tune what should be a well-oiled machine by that point, the Capitals instead leaned on several makeshift lineups down the stretch.
Although the Capitals’ headliners returned for the playoffs, few delivered. The aforementioned power play, which ranked third in the NHL during the regular season, looked out of sync and went 3-for-21 against the Bruins.
“That’s obviously an area that we should have been better at and have to take advantage especially with this many opportunities,” said Backstrom, who led the Caps in scoring during the regular season but was limited to one assist in the five-game series.
“It usually doesn’t happen in the playoffs,” Backstrom said of the power play’s lack of execution, “but this year it did.”
With their season on the line in Game 5 Sunday, the Capitals had three power-play opportunities in the game’s first 22 minutes. Given the chance to take an early lead and set the tone for the rest of the night, Washington came up empty on all three chances. Within a minute of the end of the third Caps power play, the Bruins scored at even strength to take a 1-0 lead. They never looked back.
The Capitals offensive struggles weren’t limited to the power play: Washington’s headliners also struggled to generate at even strength.
While Tom Wilson scored a five-on-five goal just six minutes into Game 1, Boston’s top six forwards outscored Washington’s top six 8-0 at even strength the rest of the series.
Ovechkin, it was confirmed Monday morning, had been playing through an undisclosed injury that will keep him from representing Russia at the World Hockey Championships. Backstrom, Oshie, Carlson and Lars Eller, it is believed, were all playing through injuries as well.
Players are scheduled to hold their year-end media availability on Tuesday, when details of such ailments are typically revealed.
For now, the Capitals are left to wonder how many more opportunities their aging core will have together.
“I can tell you this,” said coach Peter Laviolette, “the guys that were here, the core guys that you’re talking about, are a big reason we had success in the regular season that we did. They’re terrific players. They’ve been terrific players here. And I think we’re all frustrated with the playoffs because we weren’t able to move past the Bruins and get into the second round. So there’s frustration. And so, I think everything gets looked at and evaluated. But those guys have been — they’ve been the cornerstone of this team for a long time, and they were of this team for the regular season.”
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