Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 17, 2013

Same Old Disappointment For Capitals’ Fans

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life was traveling on Thursday, so this post is one day later than usual. The regular schedule resumes on Sunday.

It must all feel so familiar to fans of the Washington Capitals. Another Southeast Davison championship, their fifth in the last six years. After a slow start, another stellar year for superstar winger Alex Ovechkin, whose 32 goals in the lockout-shortened 48 game season led the NHL. And then, after all that success, another early exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs. All so familiar; all so painful.

This was not the way things were supposed to work out, back when Washington made the then 18-year old Ovechkin the number one overall pick in the 2004 Entry Draft. This was not the plan when he finally took the ice wearing a Capitals sweater more than a year later, after the 2004-2005 lockout finally ended. While the Caps finished dead last in the Southeast Division for the third year in a row and next to last in the Eastern Conference that season, Ovechkin thrilled fans with his offensive power. On his way to winning the Calder Trophy as the league’s best rookie, he led all first year players in goals, points, power play goals, and shots. His 52 goals and 106 points placed him third in the league in both categories. Thanks mainly to Ovechkin, Washington’s offense, which had tallied just 186 goals in the last season before the lockout, netted 237 during the 2005-2006 campaign.

By his third season the Capitals’ front office began to provide Ovechkin with some support on the ice. Alexander Semin returned from military duty in Russia, and rookie Nicklas Backstrom provided vital passing and puck handling skills while centering the first line. Ovechkin led the league in both goals and points, and the Capitals vaulted to the top of their division. But their return to the playoffs after a six year absence was brief. Washington lost in seven games to the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round. With their star piling up the awards and accolades and an improving roster being built around him, at the time the defeat must have seemed like a momentary disappointment. Surely fans had no reason to think that it would instead be the beginning of a pattern of individual achievement in the regular season followed by team futility in the playoffs.

But while Ovechkin has won two Most Valuable Player Awards, been the NHL’s top goal scorer three times and been named to five All-Star teams, the Capitals have consistently floundered in the postseason. A year after the first round loss to Philadelphia, Washington squeezed by the New York Rangers in the opening round, but fell to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Conference Semifinals. In 2010 the Caps won the Presidents’ Trophy for the best regular season record only to be dismissed by the 8th seeded Montreal Canadiens in the opening round. In both 2011 and 2012 their season ended in the second round. This year they held leads of two games to none and three games to two in the series against the Rangers, but then were unable to tally a single goal in the final two games.

Up until Monday’s Game Seven the series against New York was close. Games Two through Six were all decided by a single goal, with two contests going into overtime. On Monday the Capitals dominated play early, but Henrik Lundqvist was resolute in the Rangers’ net. He stopped Mike Green on a partial breakaway midway through the first period, and just nine seconds later Arron Asham beat Washington’s Braden Holtby high on the glove side. Momentum shifted with the sudden turnaround, and by early in the second period the Rangers’ lead ballooned to 3-0. When Ryan Callahan scored New York’s fourth unanswered goal just 13 seconds into the third, the rout was officially on and disappointed fans in red jerseys began streaming for the exits.

Hockey is a team sport and it would be at least a bit unfair to pile all the blame on Ovechkin. Yet it is telling that after netting but a single goal in the seven games, he cited everything from Lundqvist’s goaltending to bad officiating as reasons for Washington’s collapse. In contrast Backstrom, who also scored just once in the series, was more capable of self-examination and sharply criticized his own play.

Diehard Caps fans will point out that Ovechkin is only 27, with several more prime years presumably still to come. But he has been playing an especially aggressive, hard-hitting style of professional hockey since he was 16. At some point his legs and body aren’t going to care what birth date is listed on his driver’s license. Meanwhile Sidney Crosby is two years younger. He and his Pittsburgh Penguins teammates have won one Stanley Cup and skated in the Finals for another. Like Crosby, Mario Lemieux and an earlier Penguins squad had won a Cup by the time he was Ovechkin’s age. Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers had won four.

Of the nine NHL franchises that have made but a single trip to the Stanley Cup Finals, the Capitals, who began play in 1974, have been around the longest. It’s now been a decade and a half since that lone trip to the Finals. That was all supposed to change when Alex Ovechkin arrived. Each year, from the first faceoff to the sounding of the regular season’s final horn, it has. Ovechkin has shot and scored, and shot and scored, thrilling the faithful packed into the always sold-out Verizon Center. The Capitals have piled up points in the NHL’s soft Southeast Division, from which only Washington advanced to this year’s playoffs.

But the hard grind of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, where the task is to find a way to win 16 games against four equally determined opponents, requires more than individual talent. Alex Ovechkin is one of the most exciting players ever to lace up skates and pull on an NHL sweater. But as another early off-season begins in D.C., it’s apparent that the Washington Capitals as led by captain Alex Ovechkin are a disappointing failure.

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