For the eighth time in the Alexander Ovechkin era of Washington Capitals hockey, the Capitals failed to qualify for the Eastern Conference Final.
Understandably, Ovechkin and the rest of his crew were filled with disappointment following their Game 6 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, which eliminated them from playoff contention.
Despite overcoming a three-goal deficit, the Capitals didn’t seem to have anything left in the tank, and the Penguins’ speed was simply too much to handle. The game ended just six and a half minutes into overtime, when Nick Bonino scored from the doorstep of the goal mouth.
"We made a great push after 3-0," Ovechkin said. "We tied the game, have opportunity to win it in the end.
"But I'm proud of my team, I'm proud of my teammates," Ovechkin continued. "But, again, we lost in the second round. So, it sucks."
It’s Ovechkin’s team, and he will be the one that will have narrative after narrative written about him and his playoff woes, but to place the blame on Ovechkin is blind ignorance and pure laziness. In his 12 playoff games, Ovechkin finished with five goals and seven assists. More specifically, in the second round series against the Penguins, Ovechkin finished with two goals and five assists in his six games.
That’s just one less point than Pittsburgh’s heavy offensive hitters, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, combined.
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To point out the Capitals’ recent playoff pushes falling short is absolutely correct, and to expect Washington to do more of the same next season is even understandably reasonable. But it would ignore the fact that this year’s edition of the Capitals was the best, most complete team ever assembled around Ovechkin. The team was a 120-point juggernaut that could win games with their powerful offense, their stout defense or their soon-to-be Vezina goaltender behind them.
And the vast majority of key contributors will be right back on the team again next season. The Capitals have just three players set to become unrestricted free agents this offseason: Jason Chimera, Mike Richards and Mike Weber. The team’s restricted free agents -- Marcus Johansson, Dmitry Orlov, Tom Wilson and Michael Latta -- won’t see dramatic pay raises that will completely break the bank.
It’s yet to be seen whether or not any of those unrestricted free agents will return next season, but the lack of upcoming free agents gives Washington the perfect balance between maintaining the core contributors and the luxury of a little wiggle room for a new player for a cap that could potentially rise by $3 million if the NHL Players Association chooses to exercise its escalator clause.
The Capitals could also expect to see some young playmakers enter the mix. Jakub Vrana, the Capitals’ 13th overall pick in the 2014 draft, averaged nearly a point per game (34 points in 36 games) in his first season in the AHL with the Hershey Bears. He has the potential to be a top-six wing for Washington, but with an overabundance of talent already in the mix, the Capitals may be spoiled enough to use him on an offensive third line.
Riley Barber, a 2012 sixth-round pick, finished with 26 goals and 29 assists in 74 games of his first AHL season, making him the 20th scorer in the AHL this season. Barber can possibly add a scoring punch on the third or fourth line. And Madison Bowey, an offensive-defenseman that ranked as the 15th-best defenseman prospect in the NHL by The Hockey News, could provide the Capitals with a bit of defensive depth after a bit more marinating in the AHL.
Not to mention, players already on the roster can reasonably expect to see a boost in play next season. Evgeny Kuznetsov finished with 77 points in just his second full season. And while he only had one goal since the beginning of March, he was still creating chances every time he was on the ice. This year was Andre Burakovsky’s first full season. Same with Nate Schmidt. Orlov missed the entire year last season with a hand injury, making his 82-game campaign his first stretch in two years.
Wilson set a career high in points with 23, and while he may never pan out to be the offensive power forward everyone envisioned on his draft day, isn’t it hard to believe he’s just 22?
It’s entirely reasonable to expect the Capitals to fall short again next season based on past performances. But it’s also entirely reasonable to expect an improvement again next season.
Ovechkin has every right to be proud of his team. They accomplished a lot this season, but they simply fell short once again to a team that was playing better hockey.
So, sure, mark this playoff exit as Ovechkin’s eighth career disappointment. But you should recognize that the elite scorer is inching ever so close to his ultimate goal. And, hey, have you ever heard of a guy named Steve Yzerman? He’s a former Detroit Red Wing, a three-time Stanley Cup winner and a Hall of Famer that is widely considered one of the greatest captains the NHL has ever seen.
Yzerman didn’t win his first cup until his 12th season in the NHL.
Next year will be Ovechkin’s 12th season.