There will be a time to panic in Washington, to blow it all up and start with a clean slate.
Now is not that time. Not even close.
Yes, the Capitals have reached the post-season eight times in the Alex Ovechkin era and failed to survive past Round 2 all eight times.
Depite fighting back from a 3-0 deficit, and Jay Beagle showing a winner’s fight to the bitter end, Washington came up short again Tuesday night, losing in overtime by the thinnest of margins.
But don’t let the NHL’s all-time parity and the fluky nature of hockey skew your perception of a great team, one capable — with a few tweaks — of contending for the Stanley Cup in 2017.
And if you’re silly enough to point the finger at the Washington captain — he of back-to-back-to-back 50-goal seasons in this goalie-friendly epoch — well, you must not have been watching the series.
Ovechkin had more goals (two) and more assists (five) than Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin combined. During a critical third period, he played 4:43 of game time straight. He has 82 points in 84 career playoff games — the type of next-level star you continue to build around.
Ditto 26-year-old goaltender Braden Holtby, worth every penny of his $30.5 million deal. The certain Vezina winner leaves the playoffs with a brilliant .942 save percentage, a better mark than any No. 1 goalie still standing.
Washington did not choke. They were defeated by an excellent team that was faster, deeper up front, and found more timely goals.
“Every year, lots of expectations. Lots of great players. There’s something we’re missing,” Ovechkin told reporters after the Game 6 loss.
“This group of guys can do better. Can go farther than the second round. I think we have the best goalie in the league. All four lines can play well. We just didn’t execute when we had a chance to put the puck in the net.”
It sure felt like this was the season for Washington, just as it felt like Pittsburgh might reach the final in 2010, 2013 and 2014.
“We didn’t own the big moments,” Justin Williams said. “The margin of error is very small in this league, and they owned the big one tonight.”
So where do the Presidents’ Trophy winners go from here?
Right back at it.
Individual awards don’t matter, hockey people say, but the fact Washington owns the best goal-scorer, best goalie and one of the best head coaches (Barry Trotz is a Jack Adams finalist) is a heck of a place to start.
Washington unleashed the Eastern Conference’s best offence, best defence, best penalty-killing unit and best power-play unit this season. Simply dominant.
If general manager Brian MacLellan tinkers too much, he risks another golden opportunity in 2016-17.
Centre Mike Richards, 31, was a value gamble at $1 million but proved too slow. He should be shown the door as a free agent. Same with 37-year-old Jason Chimera. Make room for some faster, younger talent within the system, or try to buy low on a capable castoff, the way Pittsburgh did with Carl Hagelin.
The defence core of Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik, John Carlson and Karl Alzner will return. Dimitry Orlov, 24, needs a decent raise as he turns RFA this summer. Let Mike Weber, 28, walk as a free agent. Explore Dan Hamhuis in free agency, but do not get into a bidding war.
Trust that the youth you do have will continue to develop. Evegeny Kuznetsov, who had a terrific regular season and a bummer post-season is 23. Encourage him to bulk up a bit over the summer. Andre Burakovsky is breaking out at only 21.
If Chimera leaves, Williams becomes the oldest forward at 34. Save Orpik, all the D-men are under 30.
There is one more year before the contracts of Oshie, Williams, Kutnetsov, Alzner and Burakovsky all come up for renewal. The real tough calls won’t arrive until Summer 2017.
So as much as yet another playoff defeat to the hands of Pittsburgh stings, this club is still in its prime, still worth keeping in tact for another shot.
“The shelf life in the National Hockey League if you’re a top player is 10, maybe 12 years. And so when you don’t go that far, the window sorta seems like it closes. If you haven’t gotten past that, it gets frustrating,” Trotz told reporters. “I think the sense of mortality sets in.”
No doubt. But these Capitals aren’t dead yet.