“Yet they haven’t changed anything,” Oates said he told his players. “They’re still the same team going on the same page. That’s why I think you’ve got to stay with it, and everybody try and keep getting better, and one day it’ll just happen. You’ll grow as an organization, and it’ll happen.”
For the Bruins, it happened in 2011; they won the Cup. The Capitals, quite famously, are still searching. They are one of only five teams to make the playoffs the past six seasons. Of those, three — Detroit, Pittsburgh and Boston — have won a championship during that span. The other, San Jose, has played in the conference finals twice. The Capitals haven’t advanced even that far, and the annual search for answers that began moments after their 5-0 loss to the Rangers in Game 7 of their first-round series Monday night continued as they met Wednesday and then scattered around the globe.
“We need to take the next step,” top-line center Nicklas Backstrom said. “I don’t really have a good answer for you — how. We think that we know the answer in the locker room. We talk about it every day, how you should play.”
The answers are the hard part. Over the past six years, the Capitals have gone into the postseason as upstarts (2008), Presidents’ Trophy winners (2010), underdogs (2012) and on-a-roll contenders (2013). But during this period — when the core has included Backstrom, two-time Hart Trophy winner Alex Ovechkin, defenseman Mike Green and forward Brooks Laich (who was injured for these playoffs) — they have won three series and lost six. So the unwavering organizational message — essentially, stay the course — seems open to questioning.
“When the same group has been together year after year after year, maybe the group’s not quite good enough,” said Ray Ferraro, who played 18 years in the NHL and now serves as an analyst for Canadian network TSN.
“It’s not like they haven’t made change there. But you look at the Capitals and Ovechkin, Backstrom and Green are the first things you think of, and I think all of them can be top-level players at their position. . . . But you’ve got to have more people around them. I don’t know, is Marcus Johansson a first-line player? Probably not, but that’s where they have him because that’s what they have.”
Looking for an explanation
The Capitals, from the top down, contended Wednesday that what they have is championship-worthy. “We’re going to win a Cup here,” Green said. Players have repeatedly endorsed Oates, who got off to a 2-8-1 start during a lockout-shortened season but never wavered. General Manager George McPhee, too, said he was pleased with his hire — and, really, the entire roster. It is McPhee who has assembled the teams that have excelled in the regular season but fallen out of the playoffs, and he said he has occasionally tried to find a thread that might explain those results.