Ovechkin at a loss for words after second-round exit
ARLINGTON, Va. — Alex Ovechkin looked up at the clock on the scoreboard and knew exactly what he would’ve been doing if the Washington Capitals were preparing for a Game 7. Instead, he was left to address another early playoff exit that has become an unwelcome rite of spring.
Ovechkin and the Capitals won the Presidents’ Trophy with the most points in the NHL but lost in six games to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round. This defeat was worse than anything in the recent, painful past because the Capitals were Stanley Cup favorites.
“Again, it sucks when you lose in the first round, second round, third round — it doesn’t matter,” Ovechkin said. “Your goal is (to) win the Cup.”
Three-time Cup-winner Justin Williams called the season a “failure.” Center Nicklas Backstrom said the same ending every year was “getting old.”
The Capitals made the playoffs for the eighth time in nine seasons and again failed to get past the second round.
This had the biggest thud.
“This is the most hurt I’ve been in my career,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “You don’t know how often opportunities are going to come along where you have this kind of team. You don’t. Things happen. Rosters change. Momentum changes. I’ve been on some teams where you’ve got a pretty good chance and because of the people on your team you think you always have a chance. But this sure felt like the year.”
After 56 wins and 120 points in the regular season, it wasn’t. The Penguins used speed, depth and better goaltending to move on to the Eastern Conference final against the Tampa Bay Lightning, and the Capitals lamented four one-goal losses that sent them into the summer.
“It’s all about getting hot at the right time, peaking at the right time,” said defenseman Brooks Orpik, who suffered a concussion and a neck injury in the first round after missing half the season with a cracked femur. “Maybe we peaked at the wrong time, I don’t know.”
The Capitals were the best team in the league for much of the season, just not over a six-game stretch from late April through mid-May. Pittsburgh goaltender Matt Murray outdueled Washington’s Vezina Trophy finalist, Braden Holtby, and the Penguins’ role players had the lion’s share of the production.
That’s about all that separated the Capitals and Penguins, which made it even more difficult to swallow.
“The margin of error is tiny. It’s small,” Williams said. “When it’s that small, it’s about scoring big goals and owning the big moments and they owned more of them than we did and in turn won a couple overtime games that could’ve changed the series. It is what it is. There’s moments in playoff series where you need to rise up, and we didn’t get it done.”
Coach Barry Trotz said until the Capitals get past the second round, it’s something that will always be thrown at them. This string of playoff disappointments pre-dates Trotz, who just finished his second season and is a finalist for the Jack Adams Award.
Still, time is running out for this core group to win the Cup.
General manager Brian MacLellan said during the season there’s a two-year Cup window. With left wing Jason Chimera and two midseason pickups, center Mike Richards and defenseman Mike Weber as the only unrestricted free agents, the majority of the roster is expected back next season for one more run at it.
“Every year you get older and you see that your window gets smaller and smaller,” said defenseman Karl Alzner, who played through a partially torn groin against Pittsburgh. “You keep going. Guys win Cups in the last year of their career or the second-to-last year, it just happens at some point. I’m a very positive person, so I will hope and assume it’s going to happen next year.”
With several key contracts up in a year, the Capitals will be all-in next season. They better be, with Ovechkin and Backstrom still in their prime and wondering how many more golden opportunities they’ll get.
Ovechkin wants to “win the Cup for sure, pretty hard,” center Evgeny Kuznetsov said. “That’s why you play hockey: to win something. He know he’s up to 30 right now and time is getting pretty quick.”