Another year in the Alex Ovechkin era, another postseason wasted. The Washington Capitals were eliminated in the second round at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games. Since drafting Ovechkin No. 1 overall in 2004, the Caps have made the playoffs eight times and have not advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Washington entered the postseason as the Presidents’ Trophy winners, having the most points in the regular season. However, it isn’t a guarantee that the team who accumulates the most regular season points goes on to win the Stanley Cup. In fact, seven of the last eight winners of the Presidents’ Trophy have failed to win the Cup.
Pittsburgh has been a thorn in the Capitals side during the playoffs for some time now. The Caps have lost eight of nine playoff series against the Pens. The marquee matchup of Ovechkin vs Sidney Crosby did not live up to the billing in the second career playoff matchup between the two. Ovechkin totaled seven points in the series, while Crosby only managed two points, both being assists. Crosby’s co-star, Evgeni Malkin, did not do much of anything against the Caps, scoring just a goal and an assist.
It wasn’t the stars of Pittsburgh that beat the Capitals, it was the third line production and a 21-year old rookie goal tender. The third line for Pittsburgh, which consists of Carl Hagelin, Phil Kessel and Nick Bonino, led the way, combining for 18 points. Bonino is the man who is responsible for slamming the door shut on Washington’s season, as he scored the game-winning, series-ending in overtime of Game 6.
In the decisive Game 6, Washington gave up the first three goals of the game. However, they would not go down without a fight. They cut the lead to 3-1 at the end of two before scoring two third period goals to send the game to overtime. Unfortunately for the Caps, the overtime period only lasted six minutes and 32 seconds before Bonino sent his team to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Ovechkin will get his fair share of blame and criticism for not reaching the Eastern Conference Finals yet again, but he shouldn’t get as much blame as he has in seasons past. He outscored both Crosby and Malkin combined and did all he could for his team. His teammates did not get the job done when it counted the most. Nicklas Backstrom was a non-factor as he only tallied four assists against Pittsburgh. Evgeny Kuznetsov, who led the Caps in points this season was practically nonexistent, as he only registered two points in the entire postseason. Those two needed to play a bigger role, but were unable to do so. John Carlson (12 points) and T.J. Oshie (10 points) did all they could against the Pens.
Another big reason the Caps were sent home early is the play of Pittsburgh net minder Matt Murray. The 21-year old went toe-to-toe with Braden Holtby (the likely Vezina Trophy winner) and the high-powered Capitals offense. Murray came out just fine, leading his team to the Eastern Conference Finals. Holtby didn’t play bad, but Murray played just a bit better. Holtby stopped .923% of the shots he faced while Murray was slightly better with a .926 save percentage. Five of the six games were decided by 1 goal, with three going to overtime. The Penguins won two of those overtime games.
This is not your typical Capitals second-round loss team that we have been accustomed to seeing over the years. This team ran over and through the NHL for the entire regular season, then ran into a Penguins team that has been the best over the past 3-4 months. Before Mike Sullivan took over as the Pens head coach, this team seemed off. Once Sullivan came in, the team drastically turned things around to put themselves in position to win a continue the journey to the Stanley Cup.
Now the question for Washington is what’s next? This core unit of Ovechkin, Kuznetsov and Backstrom along with the likes of John Carlson and Justin Williams have what it takes to win the Cup. What Washington needs to focus on is how to obtain some speed on both ends of the ice as well as another defenseman. Pittsburgh did a nice job of exposing a weakness of the Capitals, speed. Last season the Caps acquired veteran Justin Williams on July 1, a move that was a good one. The Caps should go out and get a fast, veteran defenseman along with a winger with speed. Head coach Barry Trotz and his staff along with the front office will now have plenty of time to game plan for the upcoming offseason.
This seemed liked the year the Capitals would put their playoff demons to rest and finally hoist the Stanley Cup, or at least make it to the Eastern Conference Finals. However, it was not meant to be yet again for the Caps and now they will have to load up the golf clubs and fishing rods.