When you win the Stanley Cup you get a mulligan. That was the 2018-19 season for the Capitals who saw their title defense end in a first-round defeat to the Carolina Hurricanes. That defeat fell within the championship grace period, however. The Caps were gassed from the long postseason run the year before and the fans were still reveling in the first championship of any of the four major sports since 1992. After a long offseason and some tweaks to the lineup, they would be back to their championship form and make a push for a second Stanley Cup in 2020.
Or so we thought.
Instead, Washington’s season came to an end in the first round on Thursday for the second straight season. This time, general manager Brian MacLellan will have to take a much closer look at the team to diagnose what went wrong in a season that had so much promise.
For half of the 2019-20 season, the Caps looked like they were exactly the team they were hoping to be. On Dec. 22, Washington was the best team in the NHL by a wide margin. With a 26-6-5 record, the Caps had a five-point cushion over the second-place St. Louis Blues and a six-point cushion over the Boston Bruins in the East. The Caps had the best offense in the league, a top-10 defense, a top-10 power play and the second-best penalty kill.
Then Dec. 23 happened.
Rarely in an 82-game season is a turning point so clearly defined as this was for Washington. In the last game before the Christmas break, the Caps went into Boston and were obliterated 7-3 in a game that was not as close as even the lopsided score made it seem.
Just one loss in an 82-game season right? The last game before the break, not a big deal. But it turned out to be as Washington never looked the same again.
The Caps went from the top team in the league to barely .500, going 15-14-3 starting on Dec. 23 with the loss to the Bruins. Washington was worse in almost every category. Suddenly the offense went from scoring 3.54 goals per game to getting only 3.28, from allowing only 2.76 goals against per game to giving up an eye-opening 3.44. Only Ottawa and Detroit were worse defensively during that stretch. The special teams declined as well with the power play declining from 21.8-percent to 17.0-percent and the penalty kill from 85.7-percent to 78.7-percent.
Alex Ovechkin was one of the few bright spots for the team in the second half of the season as a run of 14 goals in just seven games in January and February set him up to reach the 700 goal plateau on Feb. 22 making him just the eighth player in NHL history to do so. The surge in goal scoring also allowed Ovechkin to tie David Pastrnak for the league lead in goals with 48, giving Ovechkin his ninth Rocket Richard Trophy.
But the second half of the season erased almost all the positives from the first half. John Carlson’s coronation as the obvious Norris Trophy winner suddenly became more contentious. Carlson did earn a nod as a finalist for the first time, but it is now a two-horse race between him and Nashville Predators defenseman Roman Josi.
Goalie Ilya Samsonov found success in his rookie season, but the team’s defensive deficiencies got to the young netminder as he went 0-4-1 with a .869 save percentage and 4.34 GAA in his last six appearances.
Despite valuable additions at the trade deadline with defenseman Brenden Dillon and forward Ilya Kovalchuk, the Caps needed a reprieve to avoid an early playoff exit. They seemingly got one in horrifying fashion with the coronavirus pandemic.
As the NHL paused its season on March 12, it could not have come at a better time for the Caps who had seen their lead in the division whittled down to just one point by the red-hot Philadelphia Flyers. Without time to reset, it's hard to envision how Washington would have stood much of a chance in the playoffs had the season played out on time. The pause was a way for the team to fix whatever was ailing it and prepare for a deep postseason run.
And yet, even after a break of nearly five months, the Caps returned to play and looked like the same team that had struggled before the pause. The defense was shaky, the offense was inconsistent and the power play was a non-factor. The team limped its way to a third-place finish out of four teams in the round robin earning a first round date with Barry Trotz and the New York Islanders. A Caps team with underlying issues that had been affecting them since the end of December was obliterated by the well-coach Islanders who played to their identity. New York dominated the series jumping out a 3-0 lead. The Caps managed to avoid the sweep with a win in Game 4, but ultimately were handed a first-round exit for the second year in a row.
With an aging core and a season that left us with more questions than answers, the Caps now have some critical questions they must ask themselves starting with behind the bench. Is Todd Reirden still the man they trust to lead the team? Do the past two seasons reflect more on the coach or on a veteran-heavy roster that has seen its championship close? Who will back up Ilya Samsonov next season in net if not Braden Holtby who is an unrestricted free agent? Do they re-sign Brenden Dillon and, if they do, does that make Dmitry Orlov or Michal Kempny expendable? Is the offense deep enough?
The biggest question of all, however, will be whether this was just a bad loss to the season, or perhaps the end of an era, the end of Washington’s run as Stanley Cup contenders with Ovechkin leading the way. That is the question that will ultimately define the offseason as MacLellan tries to determine what's next.