After going all-in on a Stanley Cup run last season, the Washington Capitals were pressed against the cap with a number of players who they lost in the summer of 2017.
Among them were Marcus Johansson, Justin Williams, Nate Schmidt, and Kevin Shattenkirk.
With those kind of losses, expectations were tempered for the Capitals. No longer were they projected as a force or a contender, or even favourites to win their own division. And yet, they did win their third consecutive Metropolitan title and even got through the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 1998.
“Obviously, I feel great. I’ve never been in this position before and now, looking forward,” a beaming Alex Ovechkin said after the game.
What makes this breakthrough even more surprising and unlikely is how the Capitals’ lineup looked in Game 6. Star centre Nicklas Backstrom was out of the lineup, making way for Nathan Walker to make his post-season debut, Travis Boyd to become the third-line centre and for Chandler Stephenson to move up the depth chart. Fourth-liner Alex Chiasson got the Caps on the board first and, out of all the lineups Washington has put together in the Ovechkin era, it’s almost inconceivable this is the one that finally won the big game to push them through.
For years, this team was built on its offence led by Ovechkin, one of the best goal scorers in league history. But this time the difference was the defence’s ability to shut down the star-studded Penguins. Pittsburgh was the biggest shot generator in the regular season this year, averaging 34.4 per game. In Round 1 against Philadelphia the Penguins still got more than 30 shots per game, but the Capitals reduced their average to just 27.5. In the clinching Game 6, Pittsburgh managed just 22 shots on Braden Holtby in three-plus periods of hockey.
“Systematically or schematically they found something after Game 2 against Columbus,” Joe Beninati, Washington’s TV play-by-play announcer, told Jeff Blair on Sportsnet 590 The Fan. “The first two games Panarin’s running around all over the place. The offensive chances, the odd-man rushes were staggering and whatever it is schematically they found from the remainder of that series that they were able to employ against Pittsburgh. They really didn’t allow Pittsburgh all those vaunted plays that the Penguins get off the rush. They made Pittsburgh work the full length of the rink. They were totally committed to an area that Barry Trotz calls home plate and we saw more shot blocking and I think that investment, that buy-in defensively has pushed them this far.”
But it’s not as though previous Capitals teams lacked the skill or depth level to make these same kinds of adjustments and find a way through to the conference final. This team has to be the least likely of the salary cap era to make the trip to Round 3.
“There have been so many quality teams for the Caps in the regular seasons, especially recently,” Beninati said. “I immediately will look to 2009, 2010, 2016, 2017 — those are four teams that would’ve, could’ve, should’ve and didn’t get it done. This year it’s interesting that the team with nowhere near the expectation level is now into Round 3.”
Here’s a look back at the four teams mentioned by Beninati and how things went wrong for them.
2009: Lost in Round 2 to Pittsburgh
The 2008-09 season brought Washington its second straight division title as it finished with 50 wins for the second time in franchise history and an all-time best, at the time, 108 points. The Capitals were the third-highest scoring team and had the second-best power play next to only the Detroit Red Wings, who won the Stanley Cup the year before. They were 20th in GAA, though, as their starter, Jose Theodore, struggled with a .900 save percentage.
In Round 1, Theodore faltered right away and that forced then-head coach Bruce Boudreau to turn to backup Semyon Varlamov in Game 2. Largely because of Henrik Lundqvist’s play, the Capitals fell behind 3-1 in the series, but battled all the way back to force a Game 7, which was won off the stick of Sergei Fedorov in OT. It was the team’s first series win since reaching the Cup final in 1998 and signalled the start of what seemed could be a dominating era.
In Round 2 they faced their nemesis, the Pittsburgh Penguins, which gave us one of the more memorable games between these two early in the careers of Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby. Both stars scored hat tricks in Game 2 and the Capitals took a 2-0 series lead early on. The Penguins won the next three, foreshadowing the years to come, and in Game 7 they chased Varlamov, who had been excellent for the Caps to that point in the post-season. Pittsburgh scored four times on him in a little more than two periods and the Caps fell 6-2 in the deciding game.
Washington’s top five playoff scorers: Ovechkin, Backstrom, Alexander Semin, Mike Green, Fedorov
2010: Lost in Round 1 to Montreal
Of all Washington’s Ovechkin-era teams, this one may be the most disappointing. The Capitals racked up 121 points this season, still a franchise best, earning their first Presidents’ Trophy and third division title in a row. They lost just 15 games in regulation all year, which was fewer than 25 teams managed in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. Mike Green finished with 76 points in 75 games, becoming the first blueliner to average at least a point per game with 60 games played in back-to-back seasons since Ray Bourque in 1993.
This team was an offensive juggernaut, with an average of 3.82 goals per game that was the best mark of any team since 1996. These Capitals were in a league of their own, more than half a goal better than the second-place Vancouver Canucks and setting a mark that still stands as the best for the cap era (Tampa Bay averaged 3.54 goals per game in 2017-18).
The Capitals were 33 points better than their first round opponent and things looked good early — after dropping Game 1, Washington scored 17 goals over the next three games against Montreal to take a 3-1 series lead. The Habs started the series with Jaroslav Halak in net, then turned to Carey Price in Game 4, but after he faltered they went back to Halak again. And from then on he took the series from Washington.
The Capitals scored just once in each of the next three games as Halak made 37, 53 and 41 saves. Ovechkin scored once and added an assist in Games 5-7 and received most of the flak for the loss — even though he recorded 10 points in the seven games.
Washington’s top five playoff scorers: Ovechkin, Backstrom, Mike Knuble, Tom Poti, John Carlson
2016: Lost in Round 2 to Pittsburgh
The Capitals won a franchise-best 56 games in 2015-16 and earned their first Presidents’ Trophy since the playoff loss to Montreal six years earlier. In fact, Washington was 11 points better than the No. 2-ranked NHL team, the biggest gulf since the dynastic Detroit Red Wings were 11 points out in front of the rest of the league in 2005-06.
This was the first of their two all-in seasons. Holtby had arrived as a force in net and one of the best goalies in the game. Playoff performer Justin Williams had freshly arrived, T.J. Oshie was in his first year with the team and Evgeny Kuznetsov improved by 40 points over the season prior to finish as the Caps’ scoring leader. Their strength again was offence as they were one of only two teams to average at least three goals per game, and they had an amount of depth they didn’t previously have at their disposal. Ovechkin scored 50 for the third straight year and won his fourth consecutive Maurice Rocket Richard Trophy.
In Round 1 Washington mostly rolled over the Flyers, taking a 3-0 series lead and winning it in six games after Philadelphia got two games of excellent goaltending. Washington moved on to face the Penguins, so you know how this ended up.
The Caps took a 1-0 series lead, but fell behind 3-1 in a tightly contested series where each of the first four games were decided by one goal. It was a battle of goalies with rookie Matt Murray, who seized the top job in Game 3 of the previous series from Jeff Zatkoff, winning out with .926 and 2.40 totals. Ovechkin took more shots than any player in Round 2 and his seven points were second-most league wide. But he was held off the score sheet in the deciding Game 6.
“It’s a missed opportunity and another game that’s the last shot,” Ovechkin said at the time. “I’m proud of my team, proud of my teammates. I’m proud of this group no matter what happened, but, again, we lost in the second round, so it [stinks].”
Washington’s top five playoff scorers: Ovechkin, Carlson, Backstrom, Oshie, Williams
2017: Lost in Round 2 to Pittsburgh
The Caps returned mostly the same in 2016-17 and finished one win and two points shy of their pace from the season before. At the deadline they pushed in their chips to acquire Shattenkirk and this felt like the best all-around team the Caps had iced in the Ovechkin era and, arguably, ever. They were third in goals for, they allowed the fewest goals against and averaged the fourth-fewest shots against per game.
This was the year they had to break through.
In the first round they met an upstart Toronto Maple Leafs team that gave them a much bigger run for their money than anticipated, with each game being decided by one goal and five of the six going to overtime. Washington even trailed 2-1 in the series at one point, but won four in a row and overcame a test of adversity they had more often failed than passed over the years.
And that, again, lined them up against the Penguins. This polished version of the Capitals showed a lot of composure at points throughout the series, clawing back from 2-0 deficits in Games 1 and 4, only to lose both by one in regulation. In Game 5 they recovered from a one-goal deficit in the third period to win by two, blew away Pittsburgh in Game 6 with a 5-2 win and forced Game 7 back home at Verizon Center. This, it appeared, would be the time they’d finally get over that hump.
But in Game 7 Marc-Andre Fleury stopped every shot he faced to shut out Washington 2-0 as the Pens got goals from grinders Bryan Rust and Patric Hornqvist. Ovechkin got four shots on goal, but was on the ice for both Penguins markers.
“We didn’t execute on our chances,” he said. “We tried. We tried our best.”
Washington’s top five playoff scorers: Backstrom, Oshie, Kuznetsov, Williams, Ovechkin