Capitals’ core faces questions after playoff loss to Panthers


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The box scores will forever show why this latest Washington Capitals first-round playoff exit hurts so much. They led in the third period of Game 4, they led by three goals in Game 5, and they led in the third period of Game 6. They lost them all, two in the random generator that is overtime, and thus they’re out. Ouch.

The temptation is to look back on what has now become a discernible pattern for the Capitals: four seasons since the Stanley Cup championship that felt as if a curse had finally been lifted and four prompt first-round exits. The latest came courtesy of the Florida Panthers, concluding with Friday night’s 4-3 loss in Game 6. The specifics are that T.J. Oshie willed home a puck with 63 seconds remaining in regulation to blow the lid off Capital One Arena and force overtime but that Carter Verhaeghe scored for the Panthers once they got there. That was it. Welcome to summer.

“I think we’ve been there almost every game,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “We get the lead, and we blew it away.”

Capitals eliminated from Stanley Cup playoffs with Game 6 loss to Panthers

There’s a sane line of thinking that says this series could have gone the other way, and it’s rooted in things such as Garnet Hathaway’s length-of-the-ice shot at an empty net in the final minutes of Game 4. A couple of inches one way, and it would have given the Caps a 3-1 lead in the game — and probably a 3-1 lead in the series. Instead, the puck went wide, and the Panthers got the equalizer in a six-on-five situation, then the game-winner in overtime. Why? Because, hockey.

But in the aftermath of another disappointment, what has to be assessed — and honestly — is: Can this group make a real run at another Cup?

“I think if you’ve been there before, you know what it takes,” stalwart center Nicklas Backstrom said. “To answer your question: Yes, I think so.”

It’s not the same team as back in 2018, of course. Only eight players who hoisted the trophy that June night in Las Vegas skated for the Capitals in this series. They’re still the most important pieces — Ovechkin and Backstrom and on down through the lineup, Oshie and John Carlson and the rest. And maybe that’s the issue.

“It’s on us,” Ovechkin said. “It’s on ‘Backy,’ on ‘Osh,’ on ‘Carly,’ on everybody. It’s a kind of f—ed-up situation.”

They still care, and this still wounds them.

The idea of signing Ovechkin and Backstrom, the franchise pillars who changed hockey in this town, to contracts that essentially made them Capitals for life felt right. But it’s not without ramifications. The problem isn’t that the pair — now 36 and 34, respectively — can’t still produce. Ovechkin just had another 50-goal season, and Backstrom scored the goal that put them up 2-1 Friday night. It’s that, eventually, they will have to be supporting characters for spry legs who can do the heavy lifting.

“Eventually” may have to start next season.

Find the threads that link the four straight playoff losses. They have come against four different opponents, under two different coaches. They have come in seven, five, five and now six games, respectively. They have involved injuries — to Backstrom in 2019, to Tom Wilson this year.

Whatever the commonalities and differences, the repeated results are unacceptable. Since the Capitals began annually making playoff appearances with Ovechkin and Backstrom — the first was in 2008, and they have missed only once since — they had not gone more than two straight seasons without winning a series. Now it has become something of a ritual. Springs have become awfully short in Washington.

“There’s some reflection to do,” Oshie said.

Reflection, though, isn’t likely to result in a complete roster overhaul. These have been the Capitals of Ovechkin and Backstrom through all the postseason disappointments — the blown 3-1 lead against Montreal, the struggles against Pittsburgh, on and on. They were the Capitals of Ovechkin and Backstrom when they finally, mercifully won the Cup. And they will be the Capitals of Ovechkin and Backstrom for at least two more seasons because Backstrom’s contract runs through 2023-24 and Ovechkin’s through the following season.

But it’s more than that. Oshie — who put behind an injury-plagued regular season to score six goals in this series — is signed through 2023-24, when he will be 37. Carlson, the pillar of a defenseman, is signed a year beyond that, when he will be 35. Third-line center Lars Eller is here for another year, when he will turn 34. The only established, core players who have at least a couple of seasons ahead that would still be considered in their “prime” are the 28-year-old Wilson, whose absence from all but three shifts of this series was paramount; center Evgeny Kuznetsov, who turns 30 next week; and 30-year-old defenseman Dmitry Orlov, who is signed only through next season.

So the kids have to come — and fast. Connor McMichael, 21, was in the lineup against Florida, but he has gained only enough trust to be awarded less than four minutes of ice time from Coach Peter Laviolette. Axel Jonsson-Fjallby is 24. Aliaksei Protas is 21. Hendrix Lapierre is 20. At some point — and soon — they have to replace the aging pieces by taking a heavy percentage of both ice time and production. There is a core here that’s qualified to teach. The students have to be both willing and able, or the results will be some version of the same.

“The last couple years, we’ve been down, and teams have had their way with us a little bit,” Oshie said, reflecting on five-game losses to the New York Islanders and Boston Bruins. “I don’t think the all-in aspect was quite there the last couple years. This year, I think we were extremely close to being 100 percent, everybody on board.”

Yet what remained were only the latest scenes of defeat — Ilya Samsonov, lying in the crease after Verhaege’s goal; the Panthers leaping on top of each other in the opposite corner; the long, slow handshake line; then the Capitals raising their sticks to the crowd, thanking them for rocking the red.

The guys shaking those hands were so many of the same who have been doing it here for years. If they’re going to be on the celebratory end of those handshakes, the group that heads to the locker room and wonders whom it will face next, there will have to be some younger hands involved. The transition is underway. It has to be because it’s the only way to extend springs around here.


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