The Capitals took a few moments to collect themselves before staggering onto the ice in front of a silent Capital One Arena and amidst a host of deliriously happy Florida Panthers.
Some greeted their goaltender with condolences, some glanced up at the scoreboard one last time and others stayed glued on the bench. Even as the years pass, ending the season with a loss almost always leaves the same hollow feeling. The scenes don’t vary much.
But it was a scene that’s indeed become all too familiar for the Capitals over the last few seasons, as their 4-3 overtime loss in Game 6 on Friday eliminated them from the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the fourth season in a row.
Now, as will happen every season for the next handful of years, questions will mount about whether or not the Capitals can add a second Stanley Cup banner to the rafters of Capital One Arena.
“If you’ve been there before, you know what it takes,” Nicklas Backstrom said. “To answer your question, yes, I think so. But obviously the margins are very small out there. It doesn’t take a lot to make mistakes out there. That’s just sports in general I think.”
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The series loss was a difficult one to swallow, as the Capitals blew a lead in the final three games of the series as their season ended in heartbreak on home ice.
By the way the series played out, it’s not difficult to imagine a scenario where the grizzled veteran Capitals cruised through the first round and knocked off the Presidents’ Trophy winners in five or six games.
“Well I think you see how we played against the best team in the regular season,” Alex Ovechkin said. “We have it, but we just blow it away. It is on us. It is on me, on Backy, on [T.J. Oshie], on [John Carlson]. It is on everybody. Kind of (expletive) situation.”
It was blunt, honest talk from a player who went through years of heartache before finally winning the Cup in 2018. There was hope there was still for another. But the Capitals' stars are almost all 30 years or older now and that has slowly become more of a story. When this offseason commences in earnest, it will be an intense focus of the front office.
Still, four of the most central members to the Capitals (T.J. Oshie, Ovechkin, John Carlson and Backstrom) were older veterans and the team’s leading scorers in the postseason. Oshie scored six goals in six games, including what was at the time a season-saving goal with 63 seconds left in Game 6. Backstrom and Ovechkin averaged a point per game and Carlson was tied with Evgeny Kuznetsov with five points.
The night of Game 6, though, Oshie, Ovechkin, Carlson and Backstrom were 35, 36, 32 and 34 years old, respectively. Even Kuznetsov, the team’s star center who was in the so-called second wave of Capitals young talent in the early 2010s, will be 30 years old in just a few days.
Tom Wilson scored a goal in Game 1 and then missed the rest of the series injured. He is still just 28, forward Anthony Mantha is 27 but there's a big gap between them and Washington's top younger players like forward Connor McMichael, 21, defenseman Martin Fehervary, 22, and its best minor-league and junior prospects.
Five of the team's top six defensemen (Carlson, Justin Schultz, Dmitry Orlov, Nick Jensen and Trevor van Riemsdyk) are all 30 or older. And Schultz is its most prominent pending free agent.
Meanwhile, the four series losses since Washington hoisted the Cup in 2018 have come in different ways, and to different teams. They lost in double overtime at home to the Carolina Hurricanes in a Game 7 in 2019. Then they lost to the New York Islanders in a quick five games in the NHL's COVID-19 bubble in Toronto in the summer of 2020.
They followed up last year with a five-game defeat as a roster crippled by injuries couldn’t keep up with the Boston Bruins. Then this season, the Caps fell to the Presidents’ Trophy winners in six games where it felt like they had control at various parts of the series. They easily made the playoffs in the Eastern Conference this year finishing 16 points ahead of the Islanders.
But as the lowest seed they also had a huge challenge. And the worry is if their game slips, if injuries strike, if younger teams behind them make a leap, Washington won't be in the Stanley Cup playoffs at all.
“I think it's been different,” Oshie said. “Last three games, the game was in our hands, so that comes down to just finding a way to get the job done in the other games. The last couple of years we've been down and teams have kind of had their way with us a little bit. I don't think the all-in aspect was quite there in the last couple years. This year, I think we were extremely close to being 100% everyone on board, and we let three games get away from us.”
But therein lies the difficult part for the Capitals to digest as the season ends: They played well against the team’s best regular season team and had a handful of moments where it looked like they’d be on their way to the second round.
Instead, another year has now gone by with a heartbreaking loss in the first round of the postseason. Ovechkin will be 37 next year. Backstrom's chronic hip issue limited him to 47 games. Oshie played in just 44. The chances dwindle after each opportunity missed.
“In playoffs, the margin of error is so small,” Oshie said. “One bad bounce or one misread can change the whole momentum of a game. And all of a sudden, thinking you're going to go to their barn up 3-1, [but] it's 2-2. Up 3-0, lose 5-3. Now come here, up 2-1 — I think it was under 10 minutes maybe — and then all of a sudden we're down one in the last couple minutes. Things happen fast, and we just didn't shut the door. There's really no other way to put it.”