The Washington Capitals have not advanced past the second round of the playoffs since 1998. That year, Oates, Juneau, Bondra, Kolzig, and company defeated the Ottawa Senators in the second round and made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final.
The paradox is that the Capitals have had far more talented teams in the Alex Ovechkin era than the fourth seed that got swept in the Final by the Red Wings nine years ago. Since 2010, the Caps have won the Presidents’ Trophy three times, running away with it the last two seasons.
Some of the pundits like to blame Ovechkin, the team captain who has 90 points in 97 playoff games. The 32-year-old Russian struggled somewhat in the 2017 postseason as he played through two leg injuries. But we now know that shot up on painkillers and we have seen Nastya Ovechkina’s gruesome photo. Only one other player, fellow all-world forward Nicklas Backstrom, remains from when the Capitals from the first Rock the Red playoffs in 2008. And it is difficult to imagine how the Capitals could have gotten this far without them.
Trotz has long dismissed any suggestion that Washington’s failures are more than isolated seasons that just didn’t work out. And he still suggests that a fix here and an adjustment there might produce a breakthrough.
“I haven’t slept for two friggin’ days,” Capitals head coach Barry Trotz said Friday during the team’s breakdown day. “I get it. We’re done. We’re not playing anymore. We lost that right when we lost Game Seven. So we need to fix it more. We fixed a lot of things. We’re going to fix it. That’s my mentality. Trust me, I’m not upbeat. I’m determined.”
The most enlightening assessment, however, may come from a newcomer, who suggests that the pressure of unfilled expectations may have gotten to the team. I’ll let trade deadline pickup Kevin Shattenkirk drop the hammer.
“Yeah, you can feel it,” the defenseman said Friday. “Of course you can feel it. It’s everywhere surrounding this team. It’s media. It’s the fans. It’s the players. The tough part here is that I don’t think there’s ever been many years where Washington has been considered a team that doesn’t have a chance to win. They’re contenders every year.”
Several players who were wearing street clothes instead of hockey equipment at Kettler Capitals Iceplex on Friday acknowledged the Capitals’ misadventures don’t exist in a seasonal vacuum and fundamental changes might be needed.
“It’s definitely possible,” looming unrestricted free agent Karl Alzner said when asked if the roster might be blown up. “You can only get to the second round so many times before you have to think that something needs to be changed. … I don’t really know what else to do. I thought we were winning this year. I thought that he had done everything right and we had done everything right. But we still didn’t. You’ve got to go back to the drawing board, I think.”
When asked if the problem was mental, forward Jay Beagle, who joined the team just in time for their 2009 Game Seven second round loss to Pittsburgh, didn’t rule it out.
“I mean, maybe,” he said. “In a couple months I’ll be able to tell you.”
In 42 seasons, the Capitals have made the playoffs 27 times. They have never won a Cup.
“This is a pretty good window that we had here, and unfortunately it’s not there anymore,” Beagle said.
Headline photo: Patrick Smith