When Pittsburgh Penguin forward Nick Bonino scored in overtime in game 6 to eliminate the Washington Capitals, he caused the greatest anguish of the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs. Washington HAD to win this series no matter who their opponent was, no matter how good their opponent is. Pittsburgh was the hottest team in the league at the end and they may well be the Stanley Cup champion. It doesn’t matter. Washington HAD to win this series.
It all goes back to the year both Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby entered the NHL and were projected to be rivals for best player in the league until their careers ended. But their paths widely diverged since then. Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Ovechkin’s Russian rival, have won the Stanley Cup with Malkin also winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable player. Crosby has also won 2 Olympic Gold Medals to Ovechkin’s none.
Ovechkin has piled up individual trophies but as a team player, his record is horrible. He has never even been to an Eastern Conference Final, never mind winning the Stanley Cup. Just as dismal is his international record. The Russian team used to be second to Canada, if not the favored team in international competition. But in Ovechkin’s heyday, the Russians have been horrible, first in Vancouver in 2010, and even worse, on home ice in Sochi in 2014. He has never been the difference-maker, the player who lifted his team above everyone else.
Ovechkin and the Capitals were expected to match their rivals, the Pittsburgh Penguins, to win in head-to-head matches in the playoffs at least 50% of the time. But not only have the Capitals failed to match Pittsburgh, they get put out of the playoffs in the first or second round by lesser teams – Philadelphia, Montreal, Tampa Bay, and the New York Rangers. Many times the Capitals would be ahead in a series only to squander it and find a way to lose. The Ovechkin era Capitals are wheel-spinners, the worst chokers of the Eastern Conference.
For Ovechkin, and long-time teammates, Nicklas Backstrom, and Brooks Orpik, this year may have been their best and last chance to finally get over the hump. Washington won the President’s Trophy and finished ahead of everyone by a mile. Now all that means nothing, all is in ruins. To show real improvement, that Washington really had improved, that there was hope for the future, the playoff wheel-spinning Capitals HAD to make it to the Eastern Conference Final for the first time during the Ovechkin era. Now once more Washington failed to win AGAIN when they had to.
What is particularly agonizing about this defeat is Ovechkin and Backstrom badly outplayed their direct rivals, Crosby and Malkin who were mostly silent in this series. Washington also got a big contribution from T. J. Oshie who came through in critical times for the Capitals, something that was so sorely lacking in the playoffs during the Ovechkin era. But Orpik stupidly got himself suspended, just when his team needed him the most.
It did not help that the hockey gods in their wisdom unkindly removed the erratic, Jekyll and Hyde Pittsburgh playoff goaltender Marc Andre Fleury and replaced him with the steady Matt Murray who has given Pittsburgh the kind of playoff goaltending they have been searching for since 2009. Fleury might have been counted on to blow a couple of games as he has so often done since 2009. If Murray does not get injured and continues to play well, Fleury has probably played his last game as a Penguin.
But on the flip side, Washington goaltender Braden Holtby had to significantly outplay Murray and he failed to do so. The question of goaltender will be an issue in Washington’s future.
Even more frustrating is that Washington changed coaches during the Ovechkin era AGAIN, bringing in Barry Trotz who had some success with the under-talented Nashville Predators. Now twice he becomes the latest of a string of coaches who failed to get an Ovechkin-led team into the Conference Final or the equivalent Olympic Medal round.
The biggest problem is where do the Capitals go from here? Some speculators might be smug and say that nothing can diminish the Capitals outstanding regular season and that they ran into an unfortunate playoff opponent. But Pittsburgh will be around again next year. So will Tampa Bay. The New York Rangers are still around. Even up-and-coming Philadelphia started to smell the Capitals blood, winning two straight games, and it took a gritty 1-0 win in Philadelphia to get Washington to the next round. There is also the improved New York Islanders, plus any team that did not make the playoffs, particularly the Boston Bruins if they draft and trade well in the off-season. The likely-hood of Washington repeating its outstanding regular season and finding playoff success next year is doubtful.
Ovechkin and Orpik are in the 30s, past their prime, on the downside of their careers. They will not improve as players. There is the question of goaltending. There is the fact that the Capitals got an outstanding effort from T. J. Oshie and it still was not enough. And the excuse of changing the coach should be over and done with.
The ugly truth may be that the Washington Capitals, that Alexander Ovechkin, is not good enough. The facts speak for themselves; Ovechkin’s international record and that Washington has never even made it to the Eastern Conference Final during the prime of Ovechkin’s career.
When Wayne Gretzky was traded from Edmonton in 1988, the excuse was made that he was a “wasting asset”. But Gretzky was only 27, still in the prime of his career, and Edmonton was still winning Stanley Cups. He was hardly a “wasting asset”.
But surely that term more properly belongs to Ovechkin, despite getting a significant contribution from him in this round. With Crosby and Malkin mostly silent, Ovechkin’s, Oshie’s, and Backstrom’s contributions were still not enough. The time has probably come to trade Ovechkin, Orpik, and Backstrom while Washington can still get something for them. Their career playoff records speak for themselves. They are not good enough.
Washington is now at a crossroads. The team can pat itself on the back and rest on its regular season laurels or make a significant, deep reappraisal about the talent and future of this team.
Whether they make a significant move or do nothing at all, anything Washington does or does not do in this off season will be controversial. That is the result of this defeat by Pittsburgh, off season anguish and turmoil whether they do something or not. The future that might have been clear if Washington had at last, at least made the Eastern Conference Final is now in doubt.