But the two playoff appearances since have been abject disasters, punctuated Thursday night in Toronto not by the kind of doubled-over, take-your-breath-away disaster that beset this franchise for so long. Those old losses, they were so difficult because the Caps felt so close.
In some ways, this was worse — not because the 4-0 loss to the New York Islanders in the Toronto bubble inflicted as much pain but because the Capitals went out with barely a whimper and the Cup seems a more distant memory. The Islanders, lower seeds when the series began, strangled the Capitals — and thoroughly — and now look to be a team on the rise.
So the questions come: Does this five-game flameout in the first round of Stanley Cup playoffs that are being staged without fans in the midst of a global pandemic mean the Caps are in actual decline? Or do the absolutely unprecedented circumstances — an odd restart following a months-long shutdown because of the novel coronavirus — skew such evaluations?
More succinctly: Can they be contenders again?
“Absolutely,” said veteran center Nicklas Backstrom, who returned to the lineup for Game 5 after missing three straight with a concussion. “Every year, I think we have a goal to reach the playoffs, and anything can happen there. You just have to look back to 2018. No one thought we were going to win that year.”
There will come a time when drawing on 2018 is no longer pertinent, and that time feels like right now. Here’s another question: How much leeway does the Stanley Cup championship grant the Caps teams that follow? My guess would be that any right-thinking Caps fan would have gladly taken the Cup title, even if she or he was told in advance that the following two years would yield weak first-round exits.
Now, though, the bill would appear to be due, and it’s not necessarily pretty. The sneaky terrible thing about last year’s loss in seven games to less talented Carolina is that there was actually a path back to the finals, what with Eastern Conference heavyweights Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh eliminated in the first round, leaving the Boston Bruins — whom the Caps have dominated — as the most difficult roadblock remaining.
But that loss could be shrugged off rather easily because the Cup was still fresh. This loss is tougher to process and not just because it would have been nice to watch the local hockey team in the playoffs for a couple more weeks.
No, it’s harder because it’s now another data point that’s not exactly encouraging about the direction of the franchise. It’s harder because Barry Trotz, who helped hoist that Cup in Washington two years ago, scowled behind the opposite bench, leading the Islanders. It’s harder because the Caps felt like the less-disciplined, less-structured team for so much of the series — qualities that don’t reflect well on this veteran core or on the coach who replaced Trotz, former assistant Todd Reirden.
“This is not acceptable for our organization,” Reirden said.
And it’s harder because — if their play in Toronto can be seen as actual evidence of where they stand — the Caps seem further from being a true Stanley Cup threat than at any time since 2014, when they missed the playoffs for the only time in the past 13 years, a failure that cost both Adam Oates his job as coach and George McPhee his job as general manager.
The rebuild that followed, under the guidance of General Manager Brian MacLellan with Trotz behind the bench, was calculated and methodical. It eventually yielded two Presidents’ Trophies and the Cup. What lies ahead now is trickier.
Think about the characters who make up the core of this team. Any such discussion still starts with Alex Ovechkin, the best and most important hockey player the District has ever known. As effective as Ovechkin remains — he was the only Capital to score five-on-five in the entire Islanders series, which highlights a litany of issues — he will turn 35 next month. He has taught us not to doubt him, so tread cautiously here. But at some point, he can’t be expected to lead the NHL in goals, as he has seven of the past eight seasons.
So then go down the roster. The core, right now, consists of centers Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov, wingers T.J. Oshie and Tom Wilson, defenseman John Carlson and goalie Braden Holtby. Well, wait, you can’t count Holtby anymore, because he’s about to be a free agent, and it seems financially impossible to bring back the former Vezina Trophy winner given the salary cap and the contracts — long and expensive — already on the books.
But take those other core guys: Backstrom is 32. Carlson is 30. Oshie is 33. Only Wilson, at 26, and Kuznetsov, at 28, can reasonably be considered in the prime of their careers, with a realistic hope that the best is ahead rather than behind. Yes, 19-year-old center Connor McMichael will eventually inject youth into the lineup, and the Caps feel as if they have Holtby’s replacement in 23-year-old Ilya Samsonov.
Still, assess the roster that will assemble for the next NHL season — whenever that might be — and consider whether it would be favored to win a sixth straight Metropolitan Division crown, let alone threaten for another Cup. Keep in mind that Trotz and the Islanders reside in the same division, as do the Philadelphia Flyers, who entered these playoffs as the East’s top seed and have two more shots to eliminate Montreal and advance.
“I think we’ve got some incredible talent,” Carlson said. “I think we have some young guys that can really bring it. I think there’s a lot of good days ahead for this team.”
There was a time when raising one of those division title banners mattered to this franchise, but it was a dozen years ago, when Bruce Boudreau’s hair-on-fire bunch won its last seven games of the regular season to storm into the playoffs as Southeast Division champs. Not only is Boudreau four coaches ago, but the division he won doesn’t even exist anymore.
This will be an interesting offseason — and even an interesting next week — for MacLellan. He must decide first what to do with Reirden, his handpicked Trotz successor. Does Reirden feel as if he will be the coach?
“That’s part of the job,” he said of such questions. “It’s not something I go into every day thinking about.”
That has to be MacLellan’s first order of business.
But he also must decide whom to expose in the upcoming expansion draft, in which the newbie Seattle franchise will further thin the Caps’ core. Could Seattle end up with an instant captain such as Oshie?
What would such a loss mean to the Capitals’ locker room? More than that: Does that locker room need some new energy? For all the carping about Reirden, part of the attractiveness of this group is supposed to be that its veterans have a championship pedigree, that there’s a certain amount of self-policing and trust that has been earned.
If that were true, how could their performances against the Islanders over just more than a week have been so uneven and, at times, uninspired?
“Looking at this series, I think over these five games, they wanted it more than us,” Backstrom said.
Points for honesty and self-awareness.
The Cup was earned, and it can never be taken away. But it feels more distant than ever. Over a decade, we have become accustomed to the Capitals being a regular season juggernaut that entered postseasons full of possibility. After a second consecutive first-round flameout, it’s fair to ask: Are those days over?