TORONTO — Something went rotten in Washington.
All the magic and mojo the Capitals captured on that cathartic, electric June 2018 night just off the Vegas strip — when they guzzled from the first Stanley Cup in franchise history and proceeded to turn public fountains into personal splashpads during a week-long bender — it’s gone.
And watching this talented, veteran core bow out of the bubble Thursday night with an empty performance inside an empty building, one must wonder: Do they even have another deep run in them?
If they do, the group’s composition and attack plan cannot resemble what we witnessed this month in Toronto.
Absolutely, New York Islanders coach Barry Trotz and his disciplined, organized, score-by-committee players deserve a heap of credit for skating for the logo on the front and dispatching another team from the bubble in rather swift fashion. The Isles’ 4-0 Game 5 victory, powered by two pretty Anthony Beauvillier goals, improved their post-season record to 7-2. Their stab at another series upset and an Eastern Conference Final berth will be legitimate.
That said, outside of 40 inspired minutes in Game 4, the Capitals operated like a shadow of their former selves.
Yet the man who guided the best version of this core is anything but a spectre. He’s real, and he’s earning every penny of the raise they wouldn’t give him.
Trotz’s quiet revenge has been continuing to win playoff series while the organization that let a good coach go must now wear consecutive first-round exits into a complicated off-season. This after a four-year rip under Trotz in which Washington won at least one round each spring and culminated in the ultimate prize in ’18.
Two years removed from that glorious night in Vegas, Trotz says the strangeness of coaching against his former team is starting to dissipate. The happy memories the coach shares with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby, however, are indelible. Even as he warmly shook their hands goodbye Thursday.
“It tears you a little bit because there’s so many good memories. But at the same time, you work for someone else and you want to beat that group just because we’re competitive. We don’t want to lose,” Trotz said.
“We did something very special. So, that’ll never go away. That’ll be the same till I’m on my deathbed. That will not dissipate. That will be part of who we were in 2018.
“But it’s 2020. It’s a different situation. I’d love to have that experience with the group I have right now. That’s been the goal from Day 1.”
It’s 2020, and the Washington Capitals will be besieged with hard questions.
Foremost among those circles around Trotz’s former assistant and successor, Todd Rierden, and whether he will coach this roster next season.
Rierden has been favoured in both playoff series he’s lost and has been out-coached by the better motivator.
As a whole, the Caps lacked focus, discipline and connectivity this post-season.
“I think they wanted it more than us,” Backstrom admitted.
Sure, we could scrounge up some excuses — the unavailability of stud rookie netminder Ilya Samsonov, Backstrom’s concussion, Norris finalist John Carlson’s uncharacteristic minus-10 showing — but the Caps were severely and roundly outclassed here.
They committed a reckless 41 minor penalties over eight post-season games and spent way too much time relying on an overworked penalty kill.
They mustered all of eight goals and 124 shots on net over their five-game set. A complete list of Capitals who found the net in the series: Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, and end of list.
Deadline rental Ilya Kovalchuk was but a rumour, contributing a single assist in eight post-season games and costing GM Brian MacLellan a third-round pick. Jakub Vrana was literally a non-factor (zero points) after his breakout 25-goal regular season.
“They scored; we didn’t,” Ovechkin said. “It’s a tough year. Strange year. We tried to do our best, obviously.”
With an average age of 29 this season, Washington was the second-oldest club in the conference (to Boston). The locked-up core should keep that age high again in 2020-21, and history tells us the Caps are on a cap and performance trajectory similar to the once-mighty outfits in Chicago and Los Angeles.
“It’s always tough to lose in the playoffs. Doesn’t matter how old you are,” Backstrom said. “Somehow you gotta regroup and get back for next year.”
“I look on the other side and I see champions over there,” Trotz said. “You look at Ovi, you look at Backy, Osh, Braden Holtby, John Carlson, all those guys. Those guys are champions in my mind. They always will be.”
Past champs, yes. Future ones? On this night, that feels doubtful.
Is this really a roster built for a Cup run in 2021 or beyond?
“Yeah. I think we got some incredible talent,” insisted Carlson, who gritted through an ailment here. “We have some young guys that can really bring it. I think there’s a lot of good days ahead for this team.”
But first: more clouds.
Reirden couldn’t say with any confidence he’d be back behind the bench, and some high-profile UFA coaches (Peter Laviolette, Mike Babcock, Gerard Gallant, Bruce Boudreau, et al.) might love to get their mitts on Ovechkin’s contract year.
“I’m confident that I’m a young coach that continues to improve and continues to get better,” Reirden responded to a direct question about his job security. He also said: “This is not acceptable for our organization.”
Free agents Kovalchuk, Brenden Dillon, Radko Gudas and, most significantly, Holtby won’t all be back under a flattened cap ceiling.
Lose Holtby, and, like Trotz, the Capitals lose another slice of that 2018 magic. Fitting, then, that the two men were the last to shake hands at centre ice, sharing a chat as they headed in opposite directions. Sort of.
“We had a lot of success when he was here: a guy that I have a ton of respect for. He’s an honest guy. You just wish him the best because he’s one of the good guys in hockey,” Holtby said of that handshake.
The goalie knows he might’ve played his final game with the Capitals.
“Certainly, a chance it is,” Holtby said.
“Just disappointed. We had more to give, and we just didn’t find a way to do that.”