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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