The Islanders advance to face a yet-to-be determined opponent in the second round. The Capitals pack up with an offseason worth of questions.
“Yeah, obviously, it’s always tough to lose in the playoffs,” Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said. “It doesn’t matter how old you are. Every time you lose it’s tough. But looking at this series, over these five games they wanted it more than us — you could see that overall — and they were more disciplined than us, too. But every time you lose it’s obviously tough, but somehow you’ve got to regroup and get back next year.”
Washington dropped the first three games of the series and found itself trailing 2-0 in Tuesday’s Game 4 before launching a furious rally to stave off elimination. The Capitals could never come close to that level of play Thursday, thanks mainly to a stifling effort from Coach Barry Trotz’s Islanders.
After Anthony Beauvillier scored in each of the first two periods and New York took a 2-0 lead into the third, the Capitals went out with a whimper. Washington managed just 21 shots on goal for the night and was shut out for the first time in the series. Nick Leddy and Josh Bailey scored empty-net goals in the closing minutes to seal the outcome.
“Obviously, every time you lose a series, it’s tough,” Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said. "But the mistake we made in the previous games obviously cost us the series, and it’s tough. But there’s nothing you can do right now but move on.”
The Capitals started the game with a needed boost with the return of Backstrom, who was leveled by Anders Lee in Game 1 and missed the next three games in the NHL’s concussion protocol. But Backstrom’s return wasn’t enough.
The loss marked the second straight season the Capitals and Coach Todd Reirden, who replaced Trotz after the team’s 2018 Stanley Cup run, have been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. They lost in seven games to the Carolina Hurricanes in 2019.
“Looking back at our time here in Toronto, for whatever reason our team wasn’t able to mentally and physically get to our game for long enough,” Reirden said. “We had one game where we did it, and then other than that we weren’t able to find the game that gives us the best chance to have success. ... It’s important that we step away and reassess everything because this is not acceptable for our organization.”
Two years removed from hoisting the Stanley Cup, the Capitals now have more questions than answers heading into 2020-21, the final season of Ovechkin’s 13-year, $124 million deal.
Those questions start behind the bench and in the net. Reirden inherited a championship team and has yet to win a playoff series. Starting goaltender Braden Holtby is a pending free agent. Will changes be made? Thursday night wasn’t a time for answers, though they will come soon enough.
Instead, the lasting image of the 2020 postseason for Capitals fans will be Beauvillier’s second-period goal slipping past Holtby and the dejected looks on players’ faces as the goal music blared.
It will be Holtby, who admitted after Thursday’s game that it “certainly" could have been his last as a Capital, making only 13 saves on 15 shots in Game 5.
It will be Ovechkin, the hero of Game 4, managing just three shots on goal in Game 5.
It will be 25-year-old Brian Pinho making his NHL debut in Game 3 and a heartbroken Jakub Vrana slouched on the bench after Mathew Barzal’s overtime winner after the speedy Vrana missed two chances on his own breakaway moments earlier. It will be the Capitals roaring back to their true potential in Game 4.
But broadly, it will be watching these playoff games from the comfort of home. It will be realizing that in the middle of a pandemic, the NHL — so far — successfully ran a postseason tournament.
Washington suffered from multiple problems throughout the series, including missing pieces in every game except Game 5. And while the team could be quick to point to the absences or injuries, the Capitals never played a full 60 minutes of their style of hockey.
The Capitals knew coming back from a 3-0 series deficit would be a difficult hill to climb. But after a Game 4 rally they had that sparkle of belief.
But Thursday, it was all Islanders.
“Just disappointed," Holtby said after the loss. “We had more to give and just didn’t find a way to do that. That’s never a fun thing to go through. It’s one of those things. They played well, they were able to win, and [we] wish the best of the luck to them.”
Beauvillier’s power-play tally with 9:41 left in the first period gave the Islanders the first goal. The Capitals, who led the league in minor penalties taken during the regular season, were dinged for three minors Thursday, but Nic Dowd’s hooking call proved to be the most costly.
Facing a 1-0 deficit, the Capitals came out flat in the second period after producing their best period of the postseason in the middle frame of Game 4.
With the Capitals unable to get out of their own zone and not able to sneak anything past New York goaltender Semyon Varlamov, the Islanders took advantage. Beauvillier scored his second goal of the night at 9:33 on a three-on-two chance.
And as the Capitals headed into the second intermission down two goals, doubt started to sink in. Looking completely disorganized, the Capitals were handled in the neutral zone and never established themselves in the third period. They went quietly into their dressing room after the final horn, into an offseason of questions.
“It was a tough year for everybody: families, players,” Ovechkin said. “We don’t know if there’s going to be a season or there’s not going to be a season, do you have to be in shape or the season is over. ... It’s a tough year, a strange year. We tried to do our best.”