In a season disrupted by the novel coronavirus pandemic, the NHL, after suspending play in mid-March, shifted operations to two hub cities in Canada, where it is staging the postseason tournament without fans. The Capitals entered the playoffs with many offensive weapons and a Norris Trophy finalist.
But hopes for a deep postseason run washed away as the Capitals were outworked and out-hustled by Barry Trotz’s Islanders. Away from their families, their home rink and their familiar playoff atmosphere, the Capitals dropped the first three games of the series and couldn’t come all the way back.
“We made lots of mistakes in previous games, and we didn’t score enough,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “[It was] a tough year for both teams. They scored. We didn’t. ... We had lots of good chances, lots of good looks, but we didn’t tie the game. You see the result.”
Even before the coronavirus took control, there were signs that pointed to an early exit for the Capitals. They had struggled since December. They were putting “Band-Aids,” as defenseman John Carlson described it, on their miscues, covering up mistakes with stunning comebacks. After about 50 games, the Capitals’ play started to drop off, center Lars Eller said.
“It was around then when we had quite the gap between teams under us, and now the lack of urgency drops a little bit, attention to detail. … Maybe guys got a little tired as well,” Eller said. “There are a lot of things that impact why you are losing games.”
The Capitals went 8-9-3 in their final 20 regular season games and strung together consecutive wins only once in that span. But before the pause, Washington had faith that it knew what playoff hockey looked like and that it could change gears when necessary.
“It’s frustrating for us that we had more to give and didn’t find a way to do that,” goaltender Braden Holtby said.
Washington had to deal with its fair share of issues early in the season — defenseman Michal Kempny’s recovery after surgery on a torn hamstring, center Evgeny Kuznetsov’s three-game suspension for inappropriate conduct — but there was a sense of optimism as other players started to flourish.
Carlson had a career offensive year, and Ovechkin started a “Johnny for Norris” hashtag only 11 games into the season. Winger Jakub Vrana, who thrived on the second line with “his buddy” T.J. Oshie, set career highs in goals and assists, and the fourth-line grit players, including Nic Dowd and Garnet Hathaway, started to find their rhythm. Ilya Samsonov, already anointed the team’s goaltender of the future, started to blossom as the backup to Holtby.
In February, Ovechkin scored his 700th career goal, something only seven others have accomplished. During his pursuit of the landmark, he had a span of three games when he scored eight times, including back-to-back hat tricks. He finished the 2019-20 campaign two shy of 50 goals and won his record ninth “Rocket” Richard Trophy, awarded to the NHL’s top goal scorer, sharing the honor with the Boston Bruins’ David Pastrnak.
Now the focus turns to the future.
“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.”
Ovechkin turns 35 next month, and 2020-21 is the final season of his 13-year, $124 million contract. General Manager Brian MacLellan said last month that the team would wait until after the playoffs to make any decisions.
Holtby is an unrestricted free agent, as are defensemen Brenden Dillon and Radko Gudas and winger Ilya Kovalchuk. (The team’s restricted free agents include defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler and center Travis Boyd.) Holtby, who has spent his entire 10-year NHL career with Washington and remained a key part of this group’s core, is probably on his way out. If this is the end, Holtby will close his career in Washington with a 282-122-46 regular season record, a 2.53 goals against average and a .916 save percentage.
“Certainly a chance it is,” Holtby said Thursday when asked whether he might have just played his final game with Washington. “Who knows? Live one day at a time and go from there. More right now is just, this one is going to sting for a little bit. Just take one day at a time and see where it leads.”
If Holtby’s tenure is over, waiting in the wings is Samsonov, who had a promising rookie season, going 16-6-2 with a 2.55 goals against average and a .913 save percentage. His only hiccup came during the pause, when he suffered an off-ice injury while back home in Russia that left him unable to travel with the team to Toronto.
Dillon has expressed a desire to remain with the Capitals. MacLellan said in July that he has been speaking to Dillon’s representatives “pretty consistently” since the team acquired the 29-year-old from the San Jose Sharks in February. MacLellan said he will continue to have discussions and “see if we can work something out in the end here.”
Gudas told a Czech media outlet during the pause that he thought there would be “no chance” the team would re-sign him, and Kovalchuk is also not expected to remain in Washington.
Attention will also turn to the Capitals’ coaching staff.
Even before the postseason, the team knew there would be at least one change ahead of next season. Reid Cashman, 37, was named head coach of the Dartmouth men’s hockey team in early June. Cashman was in charge of the defense in Washington, where he spent two seasons. He and Scott Arniel were added to Coach Todd Reirden’s staff in August 2018.
Reirden, who for the second straight season could not lead his team past the first round, will face questions about his job security. This year’s exit came at the hands of Trotz, whom Reirden replaced in Washington.
“Those guys are champions in my mind,” Trotz said Thursday of the Capitals’ core group. “They always will be. It was one of those series where, as a coach, when you go through a series like that where you’ve had some success with a group of guys, it tears you a little bit because there’s so many good memories.”
When asked after Game 5 whether he was confident he would be the Capitals’ coach next season, Reirden said being reassessed is part of the job and not something he thinks about every day.
“I am confident that I am a young coach that continues to improve and continues to get better and have been able to find success in the regular season and haven’t been able to find it in two completely different circumstances in the playoffs,” Reirden said. “I don’t have all of the answers right now, and I think it is good to take some time away and look at it and dissect why it happened.”
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