The worst part of a roller coaster is the exit.
So it is with the Washington Capitals, who, after winning their first Stanley Cup in franchise history last year, struggling through long stretches and losing streaks this season, rallying to win their fourth straight Metropolitan Division title, and finally striking out of the playoffs in just seven games to the wild card Carolina Hurricanes, now find themselves stretching, grabbing their bags, and heading for the exits.
The hungry maw of a long summer promises to claim several free agents. Familiar faces like Stanley Cup hero Devante Smith-Pelly, skilled wingers Brett Connolly and Carl Hagelin, and veteran defenseman and alternate captain Brooks Orpik are all unrestricted free agents, free to sign with the highest bidder. Meanwhile, Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan will have to make tough decisions about restricted free agents like Andre Burakovsky, Jakub Vrana, and Christian Djoos, all of whom Washington still owns the rights to, and who all expect raises.
The team that takes the ice for training camp next September will look very different from the squad that raised its sticks in defeated salute to the Capital One Arena crowd on Wednesday night. Two of those sticks never made it back to the locker room. Typically stoic Nicklas Backstrom smashed his in frustration as he left the ice; captain Alex Ovechkin gently lifted his over the boards and handed it to a young fan.
“It’s tough right now. It’s a tough one for us,” a frustrated Backstrom said after the loss. “I think we shot ourselves in the foot … We would have liked a better outcome. But that happens, I guess.”
Backstrom and Ovechkin’s reactions sum up the feelings in Washington the day after—fresh agony but lingering ecstasy; disappointment, but enduring satisfaction. After all, Washington sports fans have long memories. Ask any fan of the Washington football team still waiting for their first Super Bowl win since 1992. Ask any Wizards (or Bullets) fan how long it’s been since 1978. If you Google “Washington Senators World Series championships,” you just get results for the Minnesota Twins.
The Washington Capitals have built some political capital with their fans because of that. They have delivered this city to the mountaintop, and did so within the last calendar year. To lose to an underdog Carolina team after being up 2-0 in the series, and up in Game 7 by 2-0 and 3-1 at different points, is disappointing. It is frustrating. It is not the way players or fans hoped to see this scrapbook of beloved memories conclude. But conclude it must, and a team showing more hunger than Washington did will win the Stanley Cup this year.
Injuries tested the Capitals early on, claiming superstar forward T.J. Oshie and stalwart defenseman Michal Kempny, and a large chunk of Washington’s special teams with them. The Caps power play without Oshie struggled for long stretches against Carolina, failing to shut the door on the Canes at several critical opportunities. And the defense, without Kempy’s confident skating and decision-making, allowed over 33 shots per game and struggled to exit its own zone.
The Capitals were missing key pieces of the 2018 championship formula. But in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the teams that win are the ones that are able to whip up a new recipe with the ingredients available. Washington couldn’t do that. The Hurricanes, losing stars Andrei Svechnikov and Micheal Ferland to injuries in Game 3, did.
That brings us to the elephant behind the bench.
Head coach Todd Reirden is the most obvious and immediate difference from last year’s championship team. While Reirden spent four years as an assistant coach with the Capitals, credited with the successful development of key young players like Dmitry Orlov, critics wondered if he lacked intensity required to coach a team through difficult playoff moments. A quality that some observers attribute to his predecessor Barry Trotz.
This notion overlooks how Trotz consistently showed the utmost kindness, generosity, affability, and friendliness in public, just as Reirden has. The difference is the abundance of all-access footage like Epix’s Road to the NHL Winter Classic that was filmed under Trotz, which lifted the curtain to show the coarse, profane side of all NHL coaches that rarely leaves the locker room.
“Inconsistency in our game and throughout the series,” Reirden said when asked what went wrong against Carolina. “We had some chances to put it away in [Game 7] early, just like we had some chances to put the series away, and we weren’t able to finish those plays. That’s how I would describe it.”
It’s fair to say that fellow rookie head coach Rod Brind’Amour made the necessary adjustments that Reirden simply didn’t. After giving up eight goals in their first two losses, two of which came on the power play, the Hurricanes penalty kill quickly figured out the Capitals standard 1-3-1 formation, going 5-for-5 in the final two games. And late in double overtime in Game 7, as the Capitals’ exhausted forwards visibly labored to make even the simplest defensive play in their own zone, Nic Dowd and Smith-Pelly remained stapled to the bench, legs fresh as daisies after skating less than nine minutes in a game that lasted more than 90.
But those are conversations for another day. Painful as these playoff autopsies are, they are pleasantly numbed by the Novocaine of a championship. Waiting 44 years was unbearable—until it wasn’t. The Capitals have won before, the thinking goes, and they’ll win again.
And even if they don’t for a while, well, that first one felt pretty damn good.