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What happens after the heroic images fade and the adrenaline dies down, and the champions totter back to their castles fat on victory? The Washington Capitals won the Stanley Cup back in 2018, slaying 44 years of demons in one mighty exorcism that helped turn D.C. into the “District of Champions” and transformed decades of cynicism and pain into nothing more than a beautiful prologue. The 22 players with their names engraved in silver on hockey’s grandest trophy will live forever as Washington legends.
Since then, however, the Capitals have sputtered into the playoffs, been visibly outplayed, and promptly eliminated in the first round three years in a row. Most recently, they dropped four straight games to Boston after defeating the Bruins in the first game of their playoff series. They have changed head coaches twice. They have watched one of their rivals, the Tampa Bay Lightning, win another Stanley Cup while their own window for a second championship seems to grow smaller every day. Of those original 22 names etched on the cup in 2018, only nine remain with the Capitals today.
The thermonuclear center of that aging championship core is captain Alex Ovechkin. Already the sixth leading goal-scorer in NHL history and a bona fide all-time great, Ovechkin enters this off-season as a free agent for the first time in his 16-year career. Few worry that the most famous face in all of D.C. sports might actually sign with another NHL team; the bigger question is whether Ovechkin might retire from North American hockey altogether, either to go play in his native Russia’s KHL or to spend more time with his wife and two young children.
“I don’t see it. He’s our captain,” Caps winger T.J. Oshie, a fellow member of that 2018 championship squad, said Tuesday, when talking with reporters for the final time this season. “Since I came into the game, when you think of the Washington Capitals, you think of Alex Ovechkin. I think Ovi loves it here; I think Ovi wants to stay here forever.”
Fellow 2018 Stanley Cup hero Lars Eller echoed those sentiments: “I think the general feeling is that everybody would be very surprised if Ovi isn’t going to be back.”
Ovechkin himself told reporters he feels “confident” he’ll be back next year. For how long and for how much money remains unknown.
Another question is the future of Ovechkin’s firebrand countryman Evgeny Kuznetsov. Just three years removed from being Washington’s leading scorer in the 2018 playoffs, the 29-year-old has frequently found himself in hot water with the Capitals’ front office. In 2019, he tested positive for cocaine; the NHL suspended him for three games and the International Ice Hockey Federation banned him from international play for four years. In January of this year, he and three other Caps players broke league COVID-19 protocols by gathering together in a hotel room after hours, and Kuznetsov later tested positive for the coronavirus. Then, just before the start of the playoffs this season, Kuznetsov tested positive for the virus again and had to be quarantined away from the team for 14 days. Add that to the fact that his goals, assists, and points totals have dropped every year since 2018, and the $62.4 million man now finds himself the subject of criticism, benchings, and trade rumors.
When asked directly if he expects to still be on the team next season, Kuznetsov laughed, and with a smirk, gave a lukewarm shrug of an answer: “I like this team, I like to be here. This organization did a lot of good things for me, and I believe I’ve done some good things, also.” But when pushed further, Kuznetsov threw up his hands and demurred: “Whatever is going to happen, this is life, right?”
This is life. Life as it goes on after the volcanic catharsis of a franchise’s first championship, a rebuilding project on the champagne-covered slopes of Pompeii.
Since five-time All-Star Braden Holtby left, the Capitals have had little success in the goalkeeping department. Ilya Samsonov, the 2015 first-round pick the Capital hoped would be the heir-apparent to Holtby, has proven to be inconsistent in net (his .902 save percentage was worst among Capitals goalies this year) and unreliable off the ice so far. Samsonov landed on the COVID-19 protocol list twice this season, and he was forced to miss the 2020 playoffs entirely after he reportedly sustained serious neck and back injuries in an ATV accident during the mid-season pause. These incidents are not all his fault, but they raise questions about the decision-making of the man to whom this team is trusting its fortunes.
Henrik Lundqvist, the 39-year-old veteran goaltender who was supposed to compete for the Washington starting job, ended up never playing a single whistle for the Capitals, missing the entire season due to emergency heart surgery. Lundqvist was going to be Washington’s goaltending safety net, reliable and consistent if aging and undramatic. With him out, the Capitals were forced to pair the second-year Samsonov with rookie Vítek Vaněček, and suddenly they were climbing without a rope.
This created a revolving door of good-enough goaltenders throughout the season, competing for their jobs every night while still learning the rhythms of NHL life. Where once Washington had quiet stability, it now has uncertainty.
But as anyone will admit, it isn’t uncertainty in life that frightens us; it’s the scary things we know. When reporters asked Eller, always the team’s most cerebral voice, what went wrong for the Capitals this year, he shifted in his seat, and then spoke his truth.
“I think we had the team to accomplish a lot more,” he said. “When I look at the lineup and how we played … We just didn’t bring it when it mattered.” Eller paused. “I want to play deep into the summer. My hunger hasn’t changed.”
But hunger is a hard thing to maintain when you’ve just recently eaten to your heart’s content. For the Capitals, finding a way to stay as hungry while fighting to win it all again may be the challenge they didn’t see coming.
Photo by All-Pro Reels on Flickr, used under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 license.