As the seconds faded off the clock in Game 5 at Capital One Arena, it was hard not to think of those seconds ticking down as a missed opportunity — and not just for the prior 60 minutes.
In a 3-1 loss to the Boston Bruins, the Capitals were defeated in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs for the third-straight season as their offense went ice cold at the worst possible time. Now, as will be the case for as long as this particular core group stays together, questions will mount about when the finish line will come. Each time they're eliminated from the playoffs with Alex Ovechkin on the roster that is a lock.
Ovechkin’s massive 13-year, $124 million contract has now expired. For a long time it seemed like it never would. But the years have passed now. There’s an expansion draft coming and, with a flat NHL salary cap at around $81.5 million, the Capitals may have some tough decisions to make.
The team’s top four point leaders this season are all at least 31 years old and, as difficult as it may be for a myriad of reasons to think about the future and what’s next, those questions were already prevalent after the game.
With a Stanley Cup under their belt, the questions aren’t as pointed and the urgency isn’t as dire as it otherwise would be. No matter what happens, that championship banner will always hang at Capital One Arena and for a long, long time it was hard to imagine that. But 2018 is three years ago now and for an aging team with title aspirations, another year came and went with a first-round exit.
“I mean, every year you have a chance of winning and it’s just a matter of how we play out there,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “That’s pretty much the answer to that. Every time you’re lacing up the skates when the season starts, you’ve got a chance of it. That’s what we believe.”
It didn’t take long after the series concluded, naturally, for Ovechkin’s contract status to be brought up — a question he did not want to comment on after the game. But even putting the captain's status aside, it’s hard not to see the 2021 playoffs as another missed opportunity for this group to contend for a championship.
The Capitals were dominated in Game 4 and, despite owning a majority of the shot share in Game 5, couldn’t create enough high-danger chances to threaten Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask for the majority of the series. They struggled to create offensive opportunities on both the man-advantage and at even strength. The Bruins had an answer for everything they did.
“Obviously, we play all season long for it, playing for a Stanley Cup,” Ovechkin said. “It's hard to lose. Nobody wants to lose, right? We try do best what we can. Obviously, we can do better. It sucks. It's a bad feeling when you know you have a pretty good team. It was two good teams play against each other, you can see all the games was tight games, obviously.”
It took until Conor Sheary’s third-period goal for the Capitals to strike at five-on-five, which ended a streak of nearly 150 minutes where they didn’t score an even strength goal. In Games 3, 4 and 5, the Capitals combined for just two five-on-five goals and four in total.
“For a team that scored pretty consistently the entire year, we get in the playoffs, there is always a spot in the year where you go through a touch of you can’t score,” Washington coach Peter Laviolette said. “We didn’t really have that and we get into this round and I think you have to give some credit to the way Boston played, you got to give some credit to the goaltender.”
That shooting dry spell cast doom on the Capitals, who now have a massive and wildly interesting offseason upcoming. And, for the rest of the time that Ovechkin, Backstrom, John Carlson and the like remain in Washington, these postseason defeats won’t get any less interesting or less painful.
Ovechkin will be 36 at the beginning of next season. Backstrom turns 34 two days before Thanksgiving. T.J. Oshie will be 35 two days before Christmas. Even Evgeny Kuznetsov, once viewed as the next wave of young talent to join the Capitals, is now 29.
Father Time hasn’t beaten down any of those players just yet, despite what the series would indicate. In fact, Backstrom shot the highest percentage of his career in the 2020-21 season. Ovechkin, battling through a COVID-19 absence and injuries, was on an 82-game pace for just shy of 44 goals. Oshie posted the second-best goals-per-game mark in his time in Washington.
But as the summer emerges on the Capitals, it’s certainly fair to wonder how long this group has left in D.C., a question not made easier by their quick exit.
“Those are questions that I think you gotta think about with regard to where your team’s at,” Laviolette said. “I can tell you this: The guys that were here, the core guys that you’re talking about, are a big reason we had success in the regular season that we did. They’re terrific players, they’ve been terrific players here...But those guys they’ve been the cornerstone of this team for a long time, and they were of this team for the regular season.”
Still, the success the Capitals had in the 2020-21 regular season makes it hard for them not to view the Bruins series as a missed opportunity at getting this group another Stanley Cup. They nearly won the East Division and were the third-best offensive team in the sport. They just came up short in that department when they needed it most.
“The first three games were tight games, could have went either way and I don’t, in hindsight, we are not going to like how we played the fourth game,” Laviolette said. “Tonight our guys, they tried, they competed. We worked to play tight defensively, we worked to create and the effort was there. Game 4 was one that we will look back on and be disappointed about. Thought the first three games were a flip of a coin and tonight we couldn’t get it done.”
Each year, the Capitals make it clear in their words and in their actions on the ice that they’re fully committed to competing for a Stanley Cup. But as the clock ticked down on the season on the scoreboard high above the ice, it was fair to wonder what else it ticked down on, too.