In 2018, a Capitals team that no one expected finally got over the playoff hump and won the Stanley Cup. In 2019, after keeping the championship roster largely intact for the chance at a possible repeat and with the seas parting in front of them after multiple upsets, Washington lost in the first round to the Carolina Hurricanes.
It was a painful reminder that anything can happen in the playoffs, especially in the NHL.
“You see all the teams that get bounced out in the first round, I think it just proves how hard it is to do what we did last year and even just make the playoffs and win the first round,” Brooks Orpik said.
The loss also showed the players just how special the 2018 Cup run truly was.
“A lot of bounces went our way,” T.J. Oshie said. “We had guys get hurt but all came back and were big parts of our success. There are a lot of bumps in the road to winning a Cup. Along with a lot of effort and sacrifice, it just didn’t align for us this time.”
To win in the playoffs requires multiple factors. One of those factors is you need key contributions throughout the lineup. Players like Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom certainly did their part. Ovechkin’s Game 7 performance against Carolina would have been remembered as one of the greatest playoff performances in franchise history had the team gone on to win that game. It would have stacked up with just about anything he did in 2018.
There just was not enough support behind the superstars.
Washington scored 20 goals in the playoffs. Ovechkin and Backstrom combined for nine of them.
"It have to be everybody -- everybody on the same page,” Ovechkin said. “Everybody have to be work hard, play hard and try to do their best. You can't win with only like half the team or two players."
The 2018 Caps showed a resiliency this team had never shown before, battling back from a 2-0 series deficit for a Game 3 double-overtime win over the Columbus Blue Jackets and playing two dominant games against the Tampa Bay Lightning when facing elimination. Washington overcame injuries and a suspension in the process as well throughout the playoffs as well.
In the Game 6 series-clinching win against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Wilson and Andre Burakovsky were all out of the lineup. Nathan Walker assisted on an Alex Chiasson goal for Washington’s lone tally in regulation. Both of those players were likely only in the lineup because of the three players the team was missing.
That extra gear the team was able to tap into last season in those key moments just was not there in 2019.
“We didn’t have enough guys that played with the same bite and played at the same level that we had last year,” Matt Niskanen said. “We just weren’t at a high enough level for enough of the series. Couldn’t sustain enough minutes that were of real high execution and high compete and -- like I said -- play with the same bite. We didn’t have enough of that.”
In addition to the resiliency and the key plays, the killer instinct and the spectacular performances, there is also another factor that is often discounted, but whose presence is undeniable: luck.
Teams may have no control of it, but there’s no denying that every championship run requires a bit of luck. The Caps had it last year, they did not in 2019.
"Yeah, you got to get lucky,” Orpik said. “I think anybody that tells you differently hasn't won before. You need a lot of luck on your side. Both in terms of how games go and also health.”
Washington dealt with a number of injuries in 2018, but it did not lose any significant player for the entire postseason as it did with defenseman Michal Kempny prior to the 2019 postseason. Oshie also suffered a serious clavicle injury in Game 4 against Carolina. Just how long he might have been out remains unclear, but his absence certainly played a factor in the loss.
“I don't think you ever look at injuries as excuses, but it's impossible not to look at those two guys missing as really disrupting the balance of our lineup,” Orpik said. “Those are guys that you don't replace. You can put other guys in those positions, but you're not getting back to the level that those two guys provide.”
Beyond just the injuries, the puck luck wasn’t there for the Caps. Lars Eller’s Game 3 overtime goal that saved the entire postseason came off a weird play in which the puck bounced off multiple limbs before finally trickling into the net. Orpik’s game-winner in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final came off a shot that bounced off the ice to fool goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
Those were the kind of breaks Washington just did not get against Carolina.
Now, the Caps sit at home watching as teams they feel they could have beaten remain fighting for the Cup. The rest of this postseason will sting Washington because it feels like a lost opportunity.
But it also shows the team just how special their run to the 2018 Cup truly was. It is not something they are likely to take for granted in the future.
“You work your whole life to accomplish a goal, and when you accomplish it, the motivation changes in some ways – not that it’s not there, it’s just changed,” Braden Holtby said.
“You’ve got to find ways to push yourself more. That’s the beauty of sport; every situation is different and this year we just didn’t adapt quite well enough. But in saying that, it’s another experience, it’s another thing to push our motivation even further because it’s not what we were hoping for, and moving forward, it’s going to benefit us.”
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