The setup was all too familiar: The Washington Capitals found themselves facing another Game 7 after taking a 3-1 series lead.
And, even with a chance to change their narrative, the Capitals’ results begat the same sad familiarity.
It started off well. Team captain Alex Ovechkin scored the game’s first goal and saw his team outshoot the Rangers, 10-6, in the first period. But two penalties in the second — both by Mike Green, 39 seconds apart — reversed the momentum and allowed the Rangers to tie the score on their third power play.
“I said leave your best game out there and if that’s good enough you’re going to win and if it’s not good enough you can walk out of here with your head held high,” Coach Barry Trotz said.
It wasn’t. And though it feels different to some, the team again failed to rise to the challenge, no one more so than Ovechkin with his three goals and three assists in nine Game 7s.
- 2008 against the Philadelphia Flyers: one goal and one assist.
- 2009 against the New York Rangers: zero points, five shots on goal.
- 2009 against the Pittsburgh Penguins: one goal.
- 2010 against the Montreal Canadiens: one assist.
- 2012 against the Boston Bruins: zero points, two shots on goal.
- 2012 against the New York Rangers: zero points, two shots on goal.
- 2013 against the New York Rangers: zero points, one shot on goal.
- 2015 against the New York Islanders: one assist, one shot on goal.
- 2015 against the New York Rangers: one goal, six shots on goal.
And before you say I am being too hard on Ovechkin, remember after scoring a goal in Game 1 he chirped at Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist: “All series, baby. All series.”
Ovechkin would score just twice more against the Rangers, in losses in Games 2 and 7. And before you say I am still being too hard on Ovechkin, remember that he guaranteed a victory in the deciding game.
That type of bravado needs to be backed up by big moments. Trotz once compared Ovechkin to another great captain, Mark Messier, but Messier scored a hat trick in Game 6 to force a Game 7 and led the New York Rangers to its first Stanley Cup in 54 years. Ovechkin turned in his worst even-strength shot differential of the series, on the ice for 21 shots attempts for and 26 against with just three scoring chances of his own.
Against the defensive duo of Ryan McDonagh (who played 15 minutes and 10 seconds of even-strength ice time against Ovechkin) and Dan Girardi (16 minutes and 24 seconds), the shot attempt differential was even worse at minus-10 and minus-9, respectively.
“We were so close to finish the series here, but we didn’t,” Ovechkin said after the game.
There are changes to be made to get them over the hurdle, starting with getting Ovechkin some help. For example, Ovechkin’s linemates scored one goal in the series on 38 scoring chances (2.6 percent shooting) — that’s extremely low for shots that typically convert at an 8.5 percent rate. Especially with a center such as Nicklas Backstrom on the line. Here are a few ideas to get the team moving in the right direction.
Stabilize the top line’s right wing
Ovechkin and Backstrom shared more than 1,000 even-strength minutes of ice time this season, but there was a carousel of right wings: Tom Wilson, Marcus Johansson, Andre Burakovsky, Jay Beagle, Eric Fehr, Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward each took his turn. Wilson spent the most time with the duo (308 minutes at even strength) but was on the ice for just 1.6 goals per 60 minutes. Johansson logged the second-most time (200 minutes) but scored even less (1.5 goals per 60). Ward was on the ice for zero goals scored in an admittedly small sample size of 43 minutes of ice time shared. Burakovsky, a 19-year-old rookie, had the best results with almost five goals scored per 60 minutes and 55.4 percent of all shot attempts in the team’s favor over the 182 minutes they spent as a trio. With another year under his belt he could be the solution for the upcoming season.
Lock Braden Holtby up long-term
Holtby, a restricted free agent, will get a huge salary increase after this season’s performance. His .923 save percentage and 45 quality starts (games in which he posted a higher-than-average save percentage) made him the third most valuable goalie during the regular season in Hockey Reference’s goalie point shares metric, which is an estimate of the number of standings points contributed by a player because of his play in goal.
In the playoffs, Holtby took it to another level, stopping 389 of the 412 pucks he faced, becoming the second goaltender since 1984 to start 10 or more games and win seven or fewer with at least a .940 save percentage (Jonas Hiller, 2009).
Holtby made $2 million this past season and a long-term contract for him won’t come cheap. Since he’s been in the league, there are six netminders who have faced a minimum of 4,000 shots and have a save percentage of at least .920 — and all make more than $5.3 million per year. The average annual contract value of that group is $6.7 million. But as this playoff and other playoff runs have shown, the 25-year-old is worth it.
Get a trade deadline acquisition that matters
You have to commend the Capitals for trying to get help at the deadline, but almost all the players acquired have been busts.
- 2010: Eric Belanger, Milan Jurcina, Scott Walker and Joe Corvo
- 2011: Jason Arnott and Dennis Wideman
- 2013: Martin Erat and Michael Latta
- 2014: Dustin Penner and Jaroslav Halak
- 2015: Tim Gleason and Curtis Glencross
None of the players has helped the team get past the second round and none has made an impact with the exception of Erat, whom the franchise acquired for Filip Forsberg, one of the league’s most promising rookies.
Maybe that changes in Year 2 of General Manager Brian MacLellan’s reign, but this team needs to do a better job of identifying talent at the deadline that can help with a prolonged playoff run.
Say goodbye to Mike Green
Green had a solid season. He averaged more than 19 minutes per game during the regular season and scored the most points (45) since he was a Norris finalist for the second time during the 2009-10 season. A large part of that is because he was finally healthy, but playing against softer competition on the third pair also played a role. Unless he is willing to take a significant hometown discount after finishing a contract that paid him an average of $6 million per year, it is unlikely he is in the mix with the Capitals next season. And that’s the best move for the franchise. It doesn’t make sense to commit that much salary cap space to the fifth blue liner on the depth chart and you could argue that Green cost the team Game 7 by taking two ill-advised penalties.
With Johansson and Holtby due raises and Ward and Fehr becoming unrestricted free agents, that money is best spent elsewhere.
“It was definitely disappointing,” Ward said. “I thought we were going to make it a pretty good run. It wasn’t what I envisioned. We played hard right down to the end. Games were close and I thought we left it out there. We worked hard all year to be in this position and we felt good about our group. It’s just disappointing.”
With a few targeted roster changes, the Capitals’ yearly dose of disappointment may finally come to an end.