Early exit a year after Cup win teaches Caps another lesson
ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — Nicklas Backstrom always wondered what it would take to win it all.
When he stood outside the Washington Capitals‘ locker room following first- or second-round playoff losses in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017, he lamented each missed opportunity but could never definitively say what it would take to get over the hump. After winning the Stanley Cup in 2018 and going out in the first round this year, Backstrom has a bit of a better clue for the future.
“It’s kind of like, ‘What do you need?’ You don’t know the answer to that,” Backstrom said Friday as players cleared out their lockers. “You’re just guessing and going on your instinct. But now I feel like we’ve been through it and it is possible, especially when you don’t expect the team to do it.”
Despite a seven-game upset loss to the Carolina Hurricanes, the Capitals will again be expected to compete for a title with the core of captain Alex Ovechkin, Backstrom, center Evgeny Kuznetsov, defenseman John Carlson and goaltender Braden Holtby intact. After so much went right for them to win the first Cup in franchise history, they didn’t get the good fortune of health or bounces and now have a long summer to think about what to do better next time.
“Everybody have to work hard, play hard and try to do their best,” Ovechkin said. “You can’t win with only like half the team or two players. You have to compete. If you don’t score goals, you have to do some different job, different work. It’s good lessons for us.”
One lesson two-time Cup winner Brooks Orpik knows very well?
“You’ve got to get lucky,” Orpik said. “Anybody that tells you differently hasn’t won before. You need a lot of luck on your side.”
Sometimes it’s a combination of luck, health, depth and coaching. After former Capitals coach Barry Trotz took the New York Islanders from losing John Tavares in free agency to the second round of the playoffs, general manager Brian MacLellan did not pin any of the blame for Washington’s early exit on Trotz’s replacement, Todd Reirden.
“They’re different coaches, they have different styles with the way they go about it,” MacLellan said. “Are we saying that we underperformed because we had a rookie coach? I don’t think so. You look at the performance of the players.”
The top players — Ovechkin and Backstrom — were among the best on the ice, Kuznetsov struggled and the Capitals didn’t get the secondary scoring they did last year. And as much as it’s easy to say that’s needed to win again, Kuznetsov feels motivated by the disappointment as much as the joy.
“It’s all about the happiness when you win and when you lose, it hurt,” he said. “That’s probably when you go next time on the ice, you don’t want to feel that again. That’s probably the biggest lesson.”
After becoming the oldest 50-goal scorer since the 1970s, there is no reason to bet against Ovechkin reaching the mark again next season at age 34. Ovechkin led all players in the Capitals’ first-round series with nine points after being playoff MVP a year ago and continues to defy convention to the point that teammates don’t expect him to slow down.
“I just don’t know like a cutoff date on things like that,” defenseman John Carlson said. “It seems like we’ve kind of been answering those questions for a couple years and the next year it’s a new spin on Ovi’s still great. I just, I don’t know. I can’t see it. Not next year.”
Backstrom, center Lars Eller and winger Jakub Vrana said they were banged up with undisclosed injuries. Winger T.J. Oshie, who broke his right clavicle in Game 4 against Carolina, and defenseman Michal Kempny, who tore his left hamstring in March, said they would be ready for training camp.
“(Doctors) know how excited I get to try to beat recovery times, so they didn’t give me one, but I was pretty lucky,” Oshie said. “It’s not like a separated shoulder or something that really takes a lot of rehabbing. It’s just the bone and plate have to heal, and I’ll be good to go and have a nice full summer of workouts.”
Orpik has intimated all season that this could be his last, and the thought went through his head that Game 7 was the final one he’d ever play in the NHL. But the 38-year-old defenseman isn’t hurrying a life-altering decision.
“We’ve got Disney World coming up — I don’t know, I’ll just wait till my daughter is done with school here and then take a couple trips,” Orpik said. “But I’m in no rush in terms of deciding on my future in terms of hockey. That’ll be a more health-related decision down the road.”
MacLellan said it might be tough to fit Orpik in, and there are younger players who could fill his spot on the blue line at a cheaper price.
Washington this season brought back 18 of 20 players who dressed in its Cup-clinching game, but that continuity isn’t realistic for 2019-20. Beyond Orpik, Brett Connolly could cash in on his first 20-goal season, fellow pending free agent winger Devante Smith-Pelly isn’t expected to be back and the Capitals face another salary-cap crunch.
Connolly pointed out contracts for Backstrom and Holtby are up after next season, and that’s going to factor into organizational planning. Backstrom said playing in Washington is all he knows, and Holtby would love for an extension to happen this summer, but he also knows top prospect Ilya Samsonov is waiting in the wings.
“I’m pretty realistic about what goes on in the business and such,” Holtby said. “My focus is going to be to put in everything I can this summer to make sure I’m ready to help this team win next year. Everything outside of that you let sort itself out.”