The Capitals’ season came to an earlier-than-usual end Sunday after they failed to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2007. For a franchise with lofty expectations, the 2013-14 season will be remembered as an utter disappointment. With a pivotal offseason to come, what led to their demise?
1. Defensive Shuffle
Washington’s blue line was young and inexperienced. The Capitals used a league-high 14 defensemen, half of which had fewer than 30 games of NHL experience entering the season. The defensive corps often resembled a minor-league unit and was regularly overmatched. A lack of continuity among the pairings that never allowed for chemistry to develop only exacerbated the problem and prevented the Capitals from effectively breaking out.
2. No Lead Too Big
Throughout the season, Washington’s self-inflicted mistakes developed into self-destructive habits. Among the most notorious, Washington blew 13 two-goal leads (including six in the third period alone), handing away standings points that ultimately proved costly. The Capitals also allowed 29 goals within two minutes of scoring one themselves, which killed any momentum. The Capitals simply could not get out of their own way.
3. Even Strength
Even-strength play was a glaring weakness. The Capitals were one of the worst puck-possession teams in the NHL, and they failed to generate consistent offense during five-on-five play, scoring 2.11 goals per 60 minutes (ninth-fewest) while allowing 2.39 (10th-most) as of Sunday. Those even-strength struggles rendered Washington one-dimensional as it became heavily dependent on its vaunted power play, which accounted for nearly a third of its total offense.
4. Personnel Moves
There were plenty of questionable personnel decisions: A midseason three-goalie logjam, playing top-six acquisitions Martin Erat and Dustin Penner on the fourth line and placing superstar Alex Ovechkin alongside grinder Jay Beagle in the midst of a playoff chase were among the most head-scratching. These decisions seemed to speak to a difference of opinion between coach Adam Oates and general manager George McPhee, who both may be on the hot seat.
5. Identity Crisis
The Capitals seemed to change their style of play on a game-to-game basis throughout this season. Some nights, they attempted to play a grind-’em-out way, though they were the only team in the league not to win a game when scoring two or fewer goals. Other nights, they adopted a more offensive approach. The only constant was that neither way proved successful enough to vault them into the playoffs.