This time, they have only themselves to blame.
“We’ve got it, but we’re blowing it away,” Ovechkin said Friday night after his team’s sixth game loss to the Florida Panthers. “It’s on us.”
There have been excuses ready before, from training shortcomings in 2019 and 2020 to a barrage of injuries in 2021. Ovechkin may not have been healthy this spring after injuring his left shoulder late in the regular season, but the star striker and striker has embraced the Capitals mentality “No excuses,” the slogan was even printed on the playoff kit.
After going up 1-0 and 2-1 in the first round series and going up in each of the last three games, there were no excuses for another early exit.
“The last two years we’ve been on a deficit, teams have seen their way with us a little bit,” said winger TJ O’Shea, who scored six goals and was Washington’s best player in the series. “I don’t think the all-in side has been quite there the last two years. This year, I think we were very close to being 100% on board, and we let three games slip away. In qualifying, the margin of error is very small.”
The Capitals are far from the only team that learned this difficult lesson about margin of error in hockey, although this has been a particularly harsh case against the NHL’s best regular season team and highest offense.
They allowed Florida to draw Match 4 in the final minutes and lost in overtime. They blew a 3-0 lead in Florida in Game 5 to fall behind in the series. They once again let the Panthers come from behind to win Game 6 and finish the series, although that took more OT championships from Carter Verhaeghe after Oshie tied 1:03 left in regulation.
“We’ve had a lot of time with the chain on our hands, and I think that’s more painful,” said senior defender John Carlson. “It’s been something we’ve been good at all year round, too, is canceling matches when the time is right, and we’ve been off a lot.”
The playoff breakout once again plunges the capitals into another season of uncertainty. Constrained by long-term contracts for seasoned core players, general manager Brian McClellan can’t blow the slate up with wholesale changes.
But there will be changes.
Capitals is unlikely to return for the third consecutive season with goalkeepers Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanessek. Samsonov took the playoff starter position starting in Game 3 and played well up to some difficulty in the Florida Playoff Series, but he could have more value in the commercial market and Vanecek could be a stable 1B goalkeeper going forward.
With the salary cap only raised by $1 million, the Capitals may need to make some room for a more consistent goalkeeper. Third-line player Lars Eller, who has one year left on his contract, would be a logical player to move because youngster Conor McMichael may now be ready for a full-time NHL midfield role.
It all depends on the case of Niklas Backstrom, who missed the first two months of the season with a nagging thigh injury and may need another full summer of training to get back to feeling right. Anything less than Backstrom being himself makes it difficult for Washington to compete for an accessory spot, let alone another championship.
With Ovechkin turning 37 in September, Oshie 35, Backstrom 34 and Carlson 32, it will take a serious infusion of young talent for the Capitals to win the cup again during this era. Moments after another chance to advance in the playoffs and take that shot, I fell back, the feeling was about a missed opportunity more than anything else, despite entering as an underdog.
“It’s disappointing,” said coach Peter LaViolet. “I thought our guys played hard. We had chances to win and…against a team that proved to be the top team in the league, we played hard. The games could have gone either way. They just didn’t go our way. I think that’s the part that went our way. You should leave it in your stomach for a while.”
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