Well, that was disappointing.
Call it an underwhelming performance, complete lack of effort or choking away a golden opportunity, the Washington Capitals once again failed to make it past the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Washington fell behind 3-1 in the series before taking advantage of the injury-plagued Pittsburgh Penguins in Games 5 and 6. Coach Barry Trotz made tweaks to the lineup that looked promising, including demoting superstar winger Alex Ovechkin to the third line. Braden Holtby, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner and 2017 finalist, started to settle down in net. Many hockey analysts even thought the Capitals would win Game 7 and move on to their first conference finals since 1998.
Instead, it was deja vu all over again.
Penguins’ forward Bryan Rust opened the scoring midway through the second period on a tic-tac-toe play involving linemates Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel, which was the only tally by either team heading into the third. But four minutes into the final period of regulation Ovechkin tried to make a play on the boards in the defensive zone but was denied by defensive Justin Schultz, allowing Patric Hornqvist to beat Holtby with a backhand shot 24 feet from the cage.
Washington then failed to show any sense of urgency. It only managed six shots on goal in the third period and saw its overall rate of scoring chances per 60 minutes drop from 10.4 when the score was tied to 5.8 per 60 when it was trailing.
And that was despite Ovechkin being double shifted in the third. But before that, he was given third-line minutes, skating a total of 15 minutes and 9 seconds at even strength — Andre Burakovsky, T.J. Oshie, Marcus Johansson, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom all had more.
Not that Backstrom deserved it. His performance will likely be overshadowed (undershadowed?) by Ovechkin’s but he was a non-factor in the decisive Game 7 with just two shot attempts, both misses, and no real impact on the game aside from winning 14 of 21 draws in the faceoff circle. Johansson also failed to put a shot on net.
Perhaps the most maddening part of this futility from the fan’s perspective is how many different ways the Capitals have been bounced from the playoffs, ranging from a simple (but still cruel) lack of puck luck to being outworked and outplayed by a bitter rival — the cause of death in this most recent season.
Here’s a series-by-series look at each time the Capitals were eliminated in the playoffs during the Ovechkin era, with a statistical explanation of what exactly went wrong.
2007-08 No. 3 Washington Capitals lost in the first round to the No. 6 Philadelphia Flyers, 4-3
Washington squeaked into the playoffs in 2008 after bookmakers gave it the fourth-worst odds to win the Stanley Cup that season.
Coach Glen Hanlon oversaw just six wins in the first 21 games of the season before he was replaced by Bruce Boudreau, who radically changed the focus of the team to a more offensively-oriented philosophy.
It worked. Boudreau guided the team to a Southeast Division win, giving the Capitals a No. 3 seed in the conference, but you could make the argument it was a lot of smoke and mirrors. Due to weak divisional opponents, Washington was only the eighth-best team in the East during the regular season after adjusting margin of victory for strength of schedule. Its opponent, the Philadelphia Flyers, were tied for the third-best adjusted scoring margin.
This series could have easily gone the other way, though. Washington had 13 more even-strength scoring chances in the series than Philadelphia and Flyers’ goaltender Martin Biron found it difficult to stop the high-danger chances, those originating in the slot or the crease (.677 save percentage). But he made up for that on the penalty kill, stopping 38 of the 43 shots he faced when Washington had the man advantage.
Based on Washington’s quality of shot after factoring in shot type, angle, distance from the goal and whether it originated on the power play, the Capitals should have outscored the Flyers 21 to 19 in the series. Instead, they were outscored 20 to 23.
Reason for loss: Not enough puck luck, but a pretty even series overall.
2008-09: No. 2 Washington Capitals lost in the second round to the No. 4 Pittsburgh Penguins, 4-3
Washington took a 2-0 series lead over the Pittsburgh Penguins, which, historically, results in a team moving on to the conference finals better than 88 percent of the time. But not even one of the best postseasons of Ovechkin’s career — 11 goals and 10 assists in 14 games, including dueling hat tricks with Sidney Crosby in Game 2 of the series — could carry the Capitals to the promised land.
Instead, Washington’s netminder, Semyon Varlamov, would be the team’s undoing.
Varlamov stopped 343 of the 371 shots he faced — including 81 of 94 high-danger chances, those originating in the slot or crease — with two shutouts in the playoffs leading up to a pivotal Game 7. In that deciding game, Varlamov was pulled in the second period after allowing four goals on 18 shots. His overall save percentage declined from .952 against the New York Rangers in Round 1 to a below-average .898 against Pittsburgh in the second round.
Reason for loss: Poor goaltending at the worst possible time.
2009-10: No. 1 Washington Capitals lost in the first round to the No. 8 Montreal Canadiens, 4-3
Presidents’ Trophy? Check. Overwhelming favorite? Check. Playoff success? Nope. Thanks, Halak.
Mention the name Jaroslav Halak to any self-respecting Caps fan and they might kick you where the sun don’t shine. The Montreal Canadiens’ netminder posted a save percentage of .924 during the regular season for Montreal, and then became the very definition of a “hot goalie” in the playoffs, stopping 131 of 134 shots in a three-game stretch that sealed the series — and the upset — for the Canadiens. Based on everything we knew about Halak at the time, the odds a goaltender of his skill level (career .919 save percentage over four seasons) going on that type of run was 300-to-1 against.
Halak finished the series with a .939 save percentage against Washington, which dropped to a combined .912 against the Penguins and Flyers over the next two rounds.
Reason for loss: Hot goalie.
2010-11: No. 1 Washington Capitals lost in the second round to the No. 5 Tampa Bay Lightning, 4-0
Being swept out of the playoffs is never good. Getting swept as a top seed is even worse.
Washington outshot Tampa Bay at even strength (198 attempts to 153) and kept pace with them on scoring chances (31 for each team) but allowed a much higher quality of shot to the Lightning than it did against the New York Rangers in the first round.
During the series against New York, the Capitals’ defensive efforts allowed an expected goals-against rate of 2.2 per 60 minutes at even strength once you account for shot type, distance, angle and whether the attempt originated on the power play. Against Tampa Bay it jumped up to 2.6 per 60.
If you are trading scoring chances with a playoff opponent, the higher-quality chances will almost always prevail.
Reason for loss: Poor defensive play.
2011-12: No. 7 Washington Capitals lost in the second round to the No. 1 New York Rangers, 4-3
It took Joel Ward’s overtime goal against the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins in Game 7 to get Washington, a No. 7 seed, into the second round. Ill-advised penalties and strong goalie play by its opponent in Round 2 would send the Capitals home.
Washington was whistled for 24 minor penalties in the series, four more than New York, perhaps none more important that Ward’s high-sticking penalty in Game 5. It earned him a double-minor, which the Rangers capitalized on with two power-play goals, one with 6.6 seconds remaining in regulation followed by the game-winning tally in overtime.
Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist, a hot goalie himself, started all seven games of the series, never allowing more than three goals to be scored on him in any given game and stopping 43 of 48 high-danger chances against.
Reason for loss: Bad penalties and a hot goalie.
2012-13: No. 3 Washington Capitals lost in the first round to the No. 6 New York Rangers, 4-3
Lundqvist was the difference in this one, too, stopping 214 of 226 shots against (.947 save percentage) with two shutouts, including stopping 35 shots in Game 7 while five teammates scored for New York. His .947 save percentage in this series is the best performance by an opposing netminder against Washington in the salary-cap era.
Washington outshot New York 35 to 27 in that game, 32 to 24 at even strength, but still had difficulty finding the back of the net. Based on shot quality, the Capitals should have generated 3.2 goals per 60 minutes. Instead, they produced just 1.7 with a shooting percentage of 5.3 percent.
Reason for loss: Hot goalie and an overall lack of puck luck.
2014-15: No. 2 Washington Capitals lost in the second round to the No. 1 New York Rangers, 4-3
Here we go again.
This was Washington’s fifth playoff series against New York in seven years, with the Rangers overcoming a 3-1 series deficit to force, and win, a deciding Game 7. The Capitals would hold a lead for just 112 of the 441 minutes played in this series, and it would be the fifth time Washington blew a 3-1 series lead, most among NHL teams.
In Game 5, Matt Niskanen appeared to beat Lundqvist with the first goal of the game with 2 minutes 9 seconds left in the second period, but officials waved off the goal and ruled Ward interfered with the Rangers goalie. Forward Curtis Glencross put Washington ahead halfway through the third but Chris Kreider would tie it up with 1 minutes and 41 seconds remaining in regulation, setting the stage for Ryan McDonagh to win it in overtime. Kreider scored two goals in the first period during Game 6, helping build a 4-1 lead into the third. Derek Stepan would be the hero for the Rangers in Game 7, scoring on a set play off the faceoff in overtime.
Overall, New York had more even-strength shot attempts (384 to 378) and more scoring chances per 60 minutes on the power play (34.7 per 60 compared to 31 per 60 for Washington).
Lundqvist wasn’t letting many pucks go by him, either. He stopped 211 of the 223 shots he faced in this series, giving him the two best save percentages against the Capitals in the salary-cap era, performing even better against Washington than Halak did in 2010.
Reason for loss: Outplayed, but the hot goalie helped.
2015-16: No. 1 Washington Capitals lost in the second round to the No. 2 Pittsburgh Penguins, 4-2
Once the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs started, almost everyone circled this potential matchup between Washington, the top team in the league, and Pittsburgh, the second-best club. These teams also ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in goal differential during the regular season.
This matchup started off with such promise for Washington. Offseason acquisition T.J. Oshie completed a hat trick in overtime during Game 1, but then Pittsburgh controlled the next three games of the series. Holtby’s efforts in Game 5, 30 saves against 31 shots faced, staved off elimination. But not for long.
The Penguins used their depth and speed to get out to an early 3-0 lead in Game 6, with Nick Bonino clinching the win in overtime to send Pittsburgh to the Eastern Conference finals. The third line of Phil Kessel, Hagelin and Bonino ended the series with seven goals and 54 shots between them, using their quickness to get the puck behind the Capitals defense with regularity.
Aside from Washington’s top forwards — Ovechkin, Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams — there wasn’t much scoring. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Mike Richards, Jason Chimera, Andre Burakovsky and Marcus Johansson combined for two goals and two assists in the series.
And when Washington was able to get quality chances on net, Pittsburgh’s rookie goaltender, Matt Murray, was up to the task.
Despite him having just 13 games at the NHL level, the 21-year-old from Ontario stopped 187 of the 202 shots he faced against Washington. His 47-save performance for the Penguins in Game 3 was just the third time since 1988, the earliest data is available, a rookie that young or younger made at least 40 saves in the playoffs in a winning effort.
Reason for loss: Outplayed, plus a lack of secondary scoring.
2016-17: No. 1 Washington Capitals lost in the second round to the No. 2 Pittsburgh Penguins, 4-3
Reason for loss: Bad penalties, slow starts, lack of shooting, poor defensive play, below-average goaltending, no sense of urgency, Ovechkin played poorly enough to be demoted. Pick one.