The Capitals’ 2015-16 regular season will be remembered as one of the greatest in franchise history. But their second-round playoff exit will soon be yesterday’s news, lumped in with all of the others that preceded it.
Is it possible the Capitals were victims of their own success?
After all, this was a team that had an 11-point lead on the rest of the Eastern Conference at the NHL All-Star break in late January. By March 15 the Caps had clinched a playoff berth – with 13 games and just under a month to play. They clinched the Presidents’ Trophy on March 28, with seven games remaining.
In fact, if Alex Ovechkin wasn’t chasing 50 goals and Braden Holtby wasn’t chasing Martin Brodeur, the Caps would have had almost nothing to play for in the final two weeks of the regular season.
So, did the Capitals peak too soon?
“It’s all about timing,” Caps defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “The year I won it in Pittsburgh (2009) I think at the trade deadline we were in 10th place in the Eastern Conference. It’s all about getting hot at the right time and peaking at the right time.
“Maybe we peaked at the wrong time. I don’t know. I thought we were just as good as (the Penguins) if we played to our potential. But they played a little better than we did.”
Capitals right wing Justin Williams, who’s had his name engraved on the Stanley Cup three times, looked like he had bit into a sour grape when he was asked if he thought the Caps peaked too soon.
“There’s no such thing,” he grumbled. “No. No way. You always want to be your best.”
The Capitals might have been their best on Feb. 22, when they owned 44-10-4 record following a 3-2 win over Arizona, giving them a 17-point lead on the Florida Panthers.
Following that win, the Caps lost 12 of their final 24 games, going 12-8-4. They also won just once in their final five games (1-2-2) and everyone wondered if they could flip on the switch at the start of the playoffs.
“I wish I could give you an absolute yes,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said when asked if his team peaked too soon. “But I can’t. I think it probably didn’t help a lot. I think it might have taken some sharpness out. I trusted the group that we were going to be sharp enough.
“Going into the playoffs we played the two hottest teams, Philly and Pitt. Our record wasn’t as bad as everyone was making it look like at the end, but we weren’t playing as sharply as we were. Down the end, if anything it hurt us a little, not being as sharp as we could have been. You can’t replicate being on your toes the whole way.”
Williams said the teams that win championships seize the moments to win hockey games. He believes the Penguins did that more than the Capitals in Round 2.
“It’s about scoring big goals and owning the big moments,” Williams said. “They owned more of them than we did and, in turn, they won a couple overtime games that could have changed the series. It is what it is. There’s moments in playoff series where you need to rise up and we didn’t get it done.”
Trotz pointed to the three consecutive power plays the Caps were given at the end of regulation in Game 6 against the Penguins following back-to-back-to-back delay of game penalties to Pittsburgh.
“Maybe the last power play, that was a moment maybe we could have stolen it,” Trotz said. “Very few times do you get three power-play goals in a game, but that might have been a moment. And we had moments in the overtime where that could have been the moment and it wasn’t.
“So, being able to say, not letting someone get the better of you, I think that will help us learn. I can give you a lot of examples and I have since I’ve been here of teams that had to go through a lot of pain, maybe a lot of disappointment, before they had ultimate success. I think for a lot of the players that have been here and have had some good teams and haven’t gotten where they wanted to, it becomes a little frustrating. You start to think it’s mental, but I think to the point where you won’t take it anymore, we’re pretty close.”
If nothing else, that’s what the Capitals would like to take from their fifth second-round exit in eight years. That they’re “pretty close” to breaking down that wall.
“You’re always learning something,” Williams said. “You can’t hope to win. You have to make yourself win. You’ve got to will yourself to win.”
That will be the challenge heading into next season, which right now, seems a long way away.