PITTSBURGH – “We lost in the second round. It sucks."
That was Alex Ovechkin after Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, speaking tacitly in the visitors’ locker room at CONSOL Energy Center.
I’ve listened to Ovechkin speak after a playoff elimination seven times. We’re both a little grayer. He still gets emotionally drained and soft-spoken. Neither one of us have an answer as to why his Washington Capitals teams can’t advance past the second round.
The Capitals fell to the Pittsburgh Penguins in overtime of Game 6 by a 4-3 score. It was the eighth time Ovechkin’s fallen short of the conference final in eight playoff appearances.
“I don’t know what to say. It’s a great group of guys,” he said.
It was, inarguably, the best team Ovechkin’s played in the NHL. Braden Holtby was the League’s top goaltender. New additions like T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams bolstered a strong returning core. They have an award-worthy coaching staff. They were close-knit. They won the President’s Trophy.
And they couldn’t get past the Penguins and the second round.
“Every year, lots of expectations. Lots of great players. There’s something we’re missing,” said Ovechkin. “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.”
Ovechkin finished the series with two goals and five assists, including a Game 5 performance that helped the Capitals extend the series after falling behind 3-1 to Pittsburgh.
“He did all the right things. He said all the right things. This certainly isn’t on him. It’s about us as a team,” Williams said, pausing to sigh, and then continuing, “obviously not … quite … being good enough.”
Not good enough is falling behind 3-1 in the series, failing to win a Game 4 that saw the Penguins without Kris Letang and Olli Maatta. Not good enough is falling behind 3-0 in Game 6, before a furious rally – assisted by an inexplicable three delay of game penalties earned by the Penguins – sent the game to overtime, where it and the series ended on the stick of Nick Bonino.
“It’s not what we had in mind,” said Holtby. “At all. It’s a good season. We came up against a really good team. Probably too soon.”
Thus begins another summer of ‘what ifs’ and questions about the future. The majority of this group will return for another crack at it in 2016-17 – it’s hard to imagine a second-round defeat would be just cause for GM Brian MacLellan to blow up his roster.
They battled to the end. They rallied in a game that looked like it was over in the second period. There’s something to be said about that when so many other postseason have ended with an elimination game whimper.
“You look at the heart of a team. That’s your progress,” said coach Barry Trotz.
Like Ovechkin, Trotz has never made it past the conference semifinals. He fought hard to keep the focus off the Capitals’ playoff disappointments during this postseason, saying that each new season brings a new team and a fresh start. But after Game 6, he made a few references to that stigma on the franchise, and how it could have been lifted with a series win over the Penguins. And if Trotz was aware of it, no doubt his locker room was as well.
“I wish we could have had a couple of wins in this round and put that to bed, but we didn’t,” he said.
The thing about the NHL is that you never know, year to year, if this opportunity will come around. The last time the Capitals lost to the Penguins, they were upset by the No. 8 seed in the following postseason.
“Just getting into the playoffs is so darn hard. You don’t even know if you’re going to get into the playoffs next year. You just don’t know. Getting into the playoffs is a privilege, it’s not a right,” said Trotz.
Ovechkin’s Capitals have been “privileged” eight times during his career to make the playoffs.
“When you’re in this game, 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. No doubt it does,” said Trotz.
“I think the sense of mortality sets in.”
Ovechkin will turn 31 this September. Next season will be his 12th in the NHL. For context’s sake, it took Steve Yzerman until his 14th to win his first Stanley Cup.
It only took six seasons for Justin Williams to win his first ring. He’s won two more since. What separates championship teams from second-round footnotes?
“You have to own the big moments,” said Williams.
“We owned some of them. Just not enough of them. And obviously not the big one tonight.”
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