Tricky issue in first-round exit, core of capital hits another wall

At the end of the Capitals’ season, with nothing but disappointment left after handshakes, Alex Ovechkin slid slowly around the bench and handed his stick to the crowd. Much of Washington’s campaign has been about the Russians — from the 36-year-old’s scoring quest to the controversy over his support of Vladimir Putin — but now, Ovechkin is the last. Players leaving the rink.

Reality quickly emerged: Washington lost 4-3 to the Florida Panthers in overtime, officially marking the fourth straight season the Capitals have failed to advance to the first round. Considering how winnable it looked, this series may have been the most painful of all time for Washington’s players. The Capitals have held the lead for the past three games — and have lost every one of them.

In 2018, Ovechkin celebrated the end of his season with a Stanley Cup on the George Town waterfront. Four years later, with no party on Friday, Ovechkin sat down to answer questions such as whether Washington’s veteran core was still capable of winning in the playoffs.

“It’s a bit of a (chaotic) situation,” Ovechkin said of the Capitals’ recent postseason struggles.

The capital has heard and answered these questions before. They faced them often before winning a championship — a championship that earned them a lot of fandom even though they’d been eliminated from the playoffs by the Carolina Hurricanes, New York Islanders and Boston Bruins before that .

But Washington cannot escape them now. Not because they couldn’t finish the game. Unlike Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and TJ Oshie in their 30s.

So, excuse the repetition, but are we sure this core still exists?

“If you’ve been there before, you know what’s needed,” Backstrom said. “To answer your question, yes, I think so. But obviously, the margins there are very small. It doesn’t take much to be wrong there. I think it’s just general sports.”

Both Ovechkin and Backstrom focused on how the Capitals couldn’t finish against the Panthers. Game 6 on Friday was a microcosm of Washington’s problems. The Capitals led 2-1 with just 1:37 of the third quarter, but Florida fought back again with two goals of its own. Washington was a little more than a minute away from losing in the regular season, but a strong 6-on-4 game led to a goal from Osh with 1:03 left to tie the game.

Despite forcing the game into overtime, the Capitals lost because they couldn’t contain the Panthers that plagued all of their series. Florida State center Catwell Hager sneaked a pass from Capitals goalie Ilya Samsonov after receiving a pass from Claude Giroud. It was Verhaeghe’s sixth goal in the past six games — so of course he’ll be the one to end Washington.

To recap, the Panthers — they’re known as the “comeback cats” — won after trailing with a little over 2 minutes left in Game 4, trailing 3-0 in Game 5 and finishing in the Scored 5 points in 5 games and took the 6th game from the Capitals. Florida had the best record of the regular season, but few thought the Capitals would lose like this.

“We have a lot of time to master this series,” Capitals defenseman John Carlson said. “And I think it stings even more, especially now.”

Difficult decisions may have to be made. For example, what should the Capitals do at goalie? Washington alternated Samsonov and Vitek Wanecek during the regular season, but neither was fully dominant in the playoffs. Samsonov is the better of the two, despite his contract expiring. Both goalies will be restricted free agents, but can Washington find an upgrade?

General manager Brian McClellan may also have to determine whether Washington’s core is worth shaking — or at least, adjusting. According to Cap Friendly, the Capitals are expected to have nearly $9 million in salary cap space this upcoming offseason. The team has six players on the playoff roster with at least three years left on their contracts: Ovechkin, Beckstrom, Carlsen, Osh, Nick Dodd and Yevgeny Kuh Znetsov. Only Kuznetsov is under 30, but that will change in a few days (his 30th birthday is May 19).

To make things harder to assess, Washington’s core fared relatively well when it came to personal data. Sure, Ovechkin had just one goal in the series — not great considering his 50 regular-season goals — but he was active, with five assists and 30 hits. Oshi leads the Capitals with six goals. Backstrom (6 points) and Kuznetsov (5 points) also found ways to contribute.

But this could well be a turning point for the capital. It was a series failure that Washington’s top brass couldn’t blame solely on the absence of wing Tom Wilson, who has missed the past five games with injury. Washington was able to push the President’s Trophy winner, but it still didn’t get the job done.

“We had it, but we just blew it away,” Ovechkin said. “It’s up to us. It’s on me, it’s on Bucky, it’s on Osh, it’s on Carly. It’s on everyone.”

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