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The Capitals look to extend their recent dominance over the Devils

The Capitals look to extend their recent dominance over the Devils

The Capitals have enjoyed a lot of success against the New Jersey Devils in recent years. In the last 20 meetings between these two teams, Washington is 16-2-2 and 7-1-1 in its last nine visits to Newark. The Caps will look to extend that dominance on Tuesday when they travel to New Jersey (7:30 p.m., NBC Sports Washington).

You can count the Devils among the teams Alex Ovechkin has tormented over the years. In 52 career games, he has scored 25 goals and 32 assists for 57 total points. And in those 52 games, New Jersey has not always been as bad as they are this season.

The Devils sit dead last in the Metropolitan Division standings with a record of 27-37-9. All signs seem to point to a win for the Caps. There’s just one problem.

Washington may be 7-1-1 in its last nine road games against New Jersey but those two losses were the last two times the Caps played in Newark. That’s right, the Caps have a two-game losing streak on the road in New Jersey. Granted, one of those games was last season, but the lone loss from this season was a whopping 6-0 blowout on Oct. 11.

With a rematch against the Tampa Bay Lightning looming on Wednesday, Washington cannot afford a similar result.

Game notes

Pheonix rising

The Caps last played New Jersey on March 8 in a game that everyone assumed Pheonix Copley would start. Instead, Braden Holtby was between the pipes and Copley played the following game against the Winnipeg Jets. With a back-to-back against the Devils and Lightning, head coach Todd Reirden elected not to gamble this time and Copley will start Tuesday saving Holtby for Wednesday.

The Djoos is loose

There have not been many lineup changes in recent weeks, but Reirden is shaking things up a bit.

Based on Tuesday’s morning skate it looks like Travis Boyd is out with Chandler Stephenson moving to the wing and Nic Dowd coming back in at center. On defense, Christian Djoos is back in for the first time since Feb. 23. He will play on the left of the third defensive pair with Nick Jensen. This will be the first time those two have played together.

This could potentially be a big game for Djoos. He has not played since the trade deadline and it certainly appears that Reirden has a Brooks Orpik, Jensen pairing penciled in for the playoffs. Getting Djoos back in may be more about giving Orpik a night off before back-to-back games, but he has to take advantage. With only 10 games left in the season, he may not get another opportunity.

Walking wounded

The Devils aren’t just bad, they’re beaten up. New Jersey will be without a number of key players on Tuesday according to reports.

Must win for the Metro

The Caps are dead even with the New York Islanders for first place in the Metropolitan Division. Both teams have played 72 games, both have 91 points, both have a ROW of 38. In case you haven’t heard, the Caps’ schedule is pretty brutal down the stretch. New Jersey is obviously the worst team the Caps have left to play.

A bad team with a bunch of injuries in the middle of a tough schedule while Washington is tied for first place in the division? I may hate the term “must win” in a non-elimination scenario, but if the Caps hope to win the division, these are two points they just have to have.

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The Capitals’ reign as Stanley Cup champions is now officially over

The Capitals’ reign as Stanley Cup champions is now officially over

WASHINGTON – This was not the way it was supposed to end.

The feeling after the Capitals’ Game 7 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on Wednesday was one of shock. There is always an element of that when a team gets eliminated from the playoffs in overtime, but it wasn’t how they lost that made it so stunning. It was when.

“Everything can happen in a seven-game series,” Nicklas Backstrom said. “We all seen that. But right now it's just disappointing. We would've liked a better outcome. ... It's tough to swallow"

“We fight through 82 games and in Game 7, they score one goal and it’s a kind of situation where you’re disappointed, you’re frustrated, especially after last year,” Alex Ovechkin said.

After winning the Stanley Cup in 2018 and returning with largely the same core intact, returning as the defending champs to win the Metropolitan Division for a fourth consecutive year, no one envisioned Washington’s defense of the Cup and its quest to repeat to end in the first round. That was especially true when the Caps drew Carolina as their first-round opponent, a plucky team with a first-year head coach that made it to the playoffs for the first time in a decade.

It looked like a favorable matchup for Washington. It wasn’t.

“All series long it was a game of mistakes,” Brooks Orpik said.

The Caps took a 2-0 lead in the series, Carolina battled back to tie it 2-2. Washington won the all-important Game 5 to push the Hurricanes to the brink, Carolina responded by winning Game 6 to force the all-or-nothing Game 7. The Caps even jumped out to a 2-0 lead in Game 7 and yet the Hurricanes just kept coming.

In the end, the overtime loss was shocking, but not surprising. Carolina had taken control in the second period and never looked back. They fired the first nine shots on goal in overtime and were controlling the play over a Washington team that just looked gassed. The Caps needed to get a favorable bounce, otherwise it was only a matter of time before Carolina would finish them off and that was exactly what happened as Brock McGinn deflected in a shot for the overtime winner.

There are many reasons Washington ultimately lost this series, but it was for none of the typical reasons we see in most upsets.

This was not a case of a goalie standing on his head to completely shut down Washington’s offense. Petr Mrazek made some key saves at times, but ultimately finished the series with a .899 save percentage. Take away the six-goal blowout of Game 5 and Mrazek’s save percentage rises to .919. That’s better, but still would rank only sixth among goalie with at least four starts this postseason.

This was not a case of a superstar forward putting the team on his back and carrying them to the improbable upset. Sebastian Aho tallied five points in seven games, Teuvo Taravainen had four. Both had fewer points that Jaccob Slavin who had nine assists and Warren Foegele who scored an improbable four goals and two assists.

This was not a case of Washington’s best players not showing up. Alex Ovechkin scored four goals and five assists to lead the team with nine points. Right behind him was Nicklas Backstrom with five goals and three assists. Evgeny Kuznetsov scored only one goal in seven games, but his one goal came in Game 7 to restore Washington’s two-goal lead in the second period.

Washington finished with a 25-percent power play and an 88-percent penalty kill, bot respectable numbers.

The Caps lost Michal Kempny and T.J. Oshie – both significant injuries – but Carolina had a number of significant injuries as well.

Really, the biggest reason the Caps felt they lost is because they were out-played, out-hustled and out-worked.

“I think we were all guilty of some mistakes at different times that were maybe a little uncharacteristic of us,” Orpik said. “Two two-goal leads at home within the same game is kind of a tough one to swallow. I don’t know if unacceptable is the right word but you have to be able to maintain those leads, especially on home ice and this time of the year. We made mistakes but they played great all series so it wasn’t just us. Eventually you have to give them credit at some point.”

Now instead of preparing for the quick turnaround of playing and starting a second-round series against the New York Islanders on Friday, the season is over and the Caps are left to wonder what could have been.

Already eliminated in the first round were the Tampa Bay Lightning, Calgary Flames, Winnipeg Jets and the Nashville Predators, all thought to be Cup contenders. Heck, even archrival Pittsburgh was out. Alex Ovechkin was playing at the top of his game as he claimed his eight Rocket Richard Trophy after leading the league in goals yet again. That performance carried over to the postseason and he was brilliant in Wednesday’s game.

But despite how favorable the road in front of them looked for another Cup run, despite the unreal performance the team’s top stars were delivering, none of it ultimately mattered.

The only thing harder than winning a Stanley Cup is winning it twice. Perhaps to expect a second championship was unrealistic. But a first round exit felt too soon. This wasn’t how it was supposed to end for a team that had finally learned how to win.

The 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs were already turning into the year of the upset. The Caps became the latest victim of that on Wednesday. And finally, a party that had begun in June 2018, came to an end officially meaning a new champion will be crowned.

“Every opportunity missed is devastating, really,” John Carlson said. “You only get to do this for so long and I've been fortunate to be on great teams. When you don't do well, it's more than we were up in a series or a game. It's everything. It hurts.”

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How the Capitals are dealing with the fallout of an unexpected early exit

How the Capitals are dealing with the fallout of an unexpected early exit

WASHINGTON — The silence was the thing. 

There were murmured conversations in the Capitals’ locker room and equipment managers came and went without their usual racket. There were no slammed doors or angry voices. Just a sound void filled by disappointment. 

A year ago, the Capitals turned visiting room at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas into an impromptu club. The party lasted for days and captivated the city. There’s a reason that celebration meant so much. Winning a Stanley Cup is so, so hard. 

And when you think you have a legitimate chance to go “back-to-back” - as forward T.J. Oshie said with such glee last summer - and the playoff bracket opens up for you and another Cup seems within reach, it is a gut punch when you’re shown the door in the first round. The Capitals tried their best to make this a new year, a new journey. But it was always colored by what they did last June.  

“You’re always trying to re-set after every season,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “You knew that was the case, but you were trying to re-set and trying to play every game like normal. We would have liked a better outcome, but it happens.”

Brock McGinn deflected home a pass by former Capitals forward Justin Williams at 11:05 of the second overtime to win Game 7 of this bizarre, back-and-forth series. The Carolina Hurricanes advanced to the second round, where they will play former Washington coach Barry Trotz, who led them to that Cup before leaving after a contract dispute, and his new team, the New York Islanders.

The Capitals will instead head to their offseason homes and wonder how this series got away from them, how this game got away from them, after leads of 2-0 and 3-1. Instead of parades and days with the Cup and they are left with questions. 

General manager Brian MacLellan waited in the hallway outside the coaches’ office, pacing back and forth absent-mindedly. His cheeks puffed and he blew out a deep sigh. Defenseman Brooks Orpik finished his media interviews and hobbled out of the locker room, a giant bag of ice strapped to his right knee. The 38-year-old is an unrestricted free agent and doesn’t know if this was his final game. 

If last year’s Cup took the edge off the loss you couldn’t tell. There were no sobs as in 2010 when Washington, the Presidents’ Trophy winner that year, was shocked in seven games by the Montreal Canadiens. Alex Ovechkin patiently answered questions this time, but he did not sit in full uniform for 45 minutes after the game, alone in his anguish, the way he did after a second-round loss to the New York Rangers in 2012. 

“You saw across the league, Winnipeg, Vegas, Tampa, Pittsburgh. There are teams that everyone expects to at least get past the first round,” Orpik said. “And it’s a probably a good reminder and indication on how tough it is to not only win one round but do what we did last year. I don’t think anyone in here took that for granted. It just proves how tough it is.”

Oshie, an integral part of last year’s championship team, was out for the series with a broken collarbone. Instead of helping his teammates on the ice, he was wearing a sling and eating popcorn in the press box eight stories above the ice and watching from a suite. He put on a brave, forced smile, but not playing was clearly killing him. 

Carolina had key injuries, too, but Oshie epitomized so much of what was good about the 2017-18 Capitals. It’s why the championship banner hangs at one end of the arena. But there was nothing he could do tonight, but watch.  

And Oshie’s teammates weren’t quite good enough after a strong start had the Capital One Arena crowd roaring. The Hurricanes, though, were like hockey zombies. They couldn’t be killed. A short-handed goal by Sebastian Aho gave them life. A ripper by Staal, long a Caps killer dating to his days in Pittsburgh, tied the game 3-3 early in the third period and set the stage for the overtime dagger.  

“We didn't envision this happening so I don't know,” goalie Braden Holtby said as he searched for answers. “It's tough right now.”

Afterward, as he answered questions in the locker room, a pair of well-dressed twenty-somethings wandered into the room and sat down at an empty locker to watch Holtby address a large scrum of reporters. The two bros weren’t exactly supposed to be there. They wandered in through an open door and looked sadder than some of the players. When Holtby was finished, one of the men yelled “Shake it off, champ!” and they gave a golf clap. Security quickly escorted them out after team staffers confronted the men. It was a fitting coda to a weird series. 

A year ago, before the Capitals turned the visiting room in Vegas into a beer-soaked frat party, Ovechkin had hatched a plan: He made sure all of his teammates were in the room, chided the ones who were lingering on the ice and when all was ready he skated the Cup to the bench. There he lifted it up one last time for the cameras and reporters, yelled “Thank you, Vegas!” and disappeared down the tunnel to his waiting teammates. The party lasted for days. 

On Wednesday, Ovechkin, dressed in his game-day suit, walked down the long hallway at Capital One Arena with his wife, Nastya, at his side and his mother, Tatyana, a few paces behind. His head was bowed, their footsteps the only sound as they made their way toward the exit. Earlier, he, too, had tried to make sense of the loss. 

“This group of guys has been in different positions, hard times, good times, and we never said, ‘It was his mistake or it was somebody’s mistake.’ It was our mistake,” Ovechkin said after the game in the locker room. “We didn’t execute. We didn’t sometimes play the right way. But it’s over. It’s hard - especially after last year. But nothing you can do right now, right?”

Nastya playfully patted her husband on the butt a few times to try to lift his spirits and he smiled, briefly. The couple have a son, now. So much has changed since last June. Ovechkin turned toward the arena and security staff watching the scene and said “Thank you, guys!” while letting his hand linger in the air as he walked through the exit and into a longer offseason than expected. 

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