“That Game 7 is a big question mark for me,” Kuznetsov said. “Like, why does that happen? For me, I feel like it’s totally different team played that game.”
Kuznetsov wasn’t the only one dumbfounded by the Capitals’ performance in one of the most important games for the franchise. Washington played its best playoff hockey in Games 5 and 6 against Pittsburgh, storming back from a three-games-to-one deficit. But in the decisive final game at home, the team looked lost on the ice.
“How does that happen?” forward Jay Beagle said.
“I’m still thinking,” Kuznetsov said. “I don’t know. I can talk about that probably a couple days with you, but I don’t really want to because it’s kind of tough a little bit.”
In years past, with the Capitals failing to get past the second round in three seasons under Coach Barry Trotz and nine playoff appearances with Alex Ovechkin on the roster, there was a clear deficiency, a reason for early exits, be it secondary scoring or defense or goaltending. What made this one so hard for the players to accept is that they didn’t have any obvious shortcomings. Several Capitals said they still believe they were a better team than the Penguins, something they couldn’t say after their loss to Pittsburgh a year ago.
As an offseason of change begins, what’s frustrating is that there’s no easy fix for what ails the team, mostly because it might be in their heads.
“I think we had a great game plan, I think we knew what we had to do, I think we had the right players,” forward T.J. Oshie said. “It felt like we had all of the right ingredients. I think, mentally, we just didn’t find a way to win. We didn’t find a way to win the Game 7.”
With each offseason, General Manager Brian MacLellan has improved the roster to address the team’s needs. He started with the defense by signing defensemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen three years ago. He then bolstered the top-six forward corps by adding Oshie and winger Justin Williams. To create a more offensive third line, MacLellan traded for Lars Eller last summer and then signed Brett Connolly. During the season, he traded for prized defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, adding another puck-moving offensive threat to the blue line.
Those moves built up to Wednesday night’s Game 7, when Washington had as complete a roster as any during the salary cap era. But what’s hard for the players to reconcile is why they couldn’t manufacture anything close to their best effort when they were both the healthier team and had controlled play for the majority of the series.
Defenseman Matt Niskanen acknowledged that “a lot of it is mental.” Players spoke of feeling like they had “nothing to lose” when they fell into a three-games-to-one series hole and pundits prematurely considered their postseason run over. But once Washington tied the series and claimed momentum going into Game 7, the weight of expectation shifted back onto them as favorite. They responded by getting shutout for the first time all postseason. Oshie said he could feel the nervous tension on the bench and in the building as soon as the Capitals fell into a 1-0 deficit in the second period.
“I just think mentally we have to just get over it and stop crumbling in certain situations,” defenseman John Carlson said. ” … I think in Game 7, you look at it, we were playing real well and obviously they’re going to be playing really well too at some points in the game and they get the first one and we didn’t do a good enough job of putting our foot down saying, ‘okay, who cares?’ We kind of crawled back into the hole a little bit and didn’t attack the situation.”
MacLellan will now have to decipher how to fix a problem that didn’t appear to be personnel-based. Relative to past offseasons, this one will feature considerable turnover in Washington, with 11 players entering either restricted or unrestricted free agency. The roster won’t be too much different with the majority of the team’s young restricted free agents expected to re-sign, but the what’s unclear for the Capitals is how they can address a team-wide mind-set that may go beyond swapping out a handful of players.
“Some of it’s probably a little bit mental,” Trotz said. “If you look at the record against Pittsburgh in the playoffs, they probably have a mental edge. They just believe that they can beat the Washington Capitals. So their advantage right now is because they’ve done it. They won a Cup last year, so they’ve gone the distance and they probably had a lot of good play, and they’ve had some good fortune, too.
“So when everything is on the line, they believe they’re going to get maybe that break where a team like us who haven’t broken through maybe we don’t believe we’re going to get that break. So if they get that break, it can’t affect us.”
Niskanen said what needs to change going forward is “the million dollar question,” one he’s thankful he doesn’t have to answer because it isn’t obvious this time.
“I don’t know if minor cosmetic changes are gonna change anything, really,” Niskanen said. “It’s pretty clear that this group didn’t get it done, so what changes and how many or what level of changes, I don’t know what the answer is. Talent-wise and our potential is clearly there. That’s all fluff now. We need results.”