The Washington Capitals season — and another chance to add to the Stanley Cup championship they won in 2018 — ended without much apparent resistance Thursday.
With a suffocating attention to detail under coach Barry Trotz, the New York Islanders have a way of making it look that way for opponents and did it to perfection in a 4-0 win in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference First Round at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto.
The Capitals tried to push back after losing the first three games of the best-of-7 series, pulling out a 3-2 victory in Game 4 on Tuesday. But the Islanders seemed to take away their will Thursday. Goalie Semyon Varlamov needed only 21 saves in the shutout.
“Looking at this series, over these five games, I think they wanted it more than us,” Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said. “You could see that overall. And they were more disciplined than us, too.”
The Capitals scored eight goals in the series, three at 5-on-5, with three players accounting for those goals. Captain Alex Ovechkin had four. T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov scored two each. That was it.
The Islanders got goals from 10 different players in the series, including two from Anthony Beauvillier on Thursday.
“Obviously, every time you lose a series, it’s tough,” Ovechkin said. “But the mistakes we made in the previous games obviously cost us the series, and it’s tough. But there’s nothing you can do right now but move on.”
The Islanders advance to the second round while the Capitals face an uncertain future after being eliminated in the first round for the second straight season. More of the pieces of their 2018 Stanley Cup team are likely to depart, including potential unrestricted free agent goalie Braden Holtby.
And their aging core — with Ovechkin, who turns 35 on Sept. 17, Backstrom, who turns 33 on Nov. 23, and 30-year-old defenseman John Carlson — will be another year older when they make their next attempt at winning the Cup.
“It doesn’t matter how old you are,” said Backstrom, who returned after missing three games while in concussion protocol. “I think every time you lose it’s tough.”
Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who turned 33 on Aug. 7, acknowledged his team’s Cup window might be starting to close after it was eliminated by the Montreal Canadiens in the four games in the best-of-5 Stanley Cup Qualifiers.
Of course, there was talk of the Capitals’ window closing after they lost to the Penguins in seven games in the 2017 Eastern Conference Second Round. Then they regrouped the next season and won the Stanley Cup for the first time.
Despite his age, Ovechkin is still going strong, tying David Pastrnak of the Boston Bruins for the League lead with 48 goals during the regular season.
So maybe there’s another turnaround coming for Washington.
“I think you’ve just got to look back at 2018,” Backstrom said. “No one thought that we were going to win that year, so anything can happen. It’s going to be a different kind of team every year, but at the same time I think we have as a goal in our group to get better and win more championships. That’s what we’re striving for.”
But the Capitals’ core has gradually been whittled away. Holtby acknowledged there’s “a chance it is” the end for him with rookie backup Ilya Samsonov ready to take over and Washington tight against the $81.5 million NHL salary cap. Holtby’s likely departure would follow the retirement of defenseman Brooks Orpik and the trade of defenseman Matt Niskanen to the Philadelphia Flyers last summer.
The biggest loss might have been Trotz, who couldn’t agree on a new contract with Washington and was hired by the Islanders two weeks after lifting the Cup in 2018. Despite finishing first in the Metropolitan Division for five straight seasons, the Capitals have not won a playoff series since Trotz left and Todd Reirden, his former assistant, took over.
Last season, the Capitals lost in the second overtime of Game 7 in the first round against the Carolina Hurricanes. They weren’t as competitive in the playoffs this season and there were already questions in Reirden’s postgame video news conference about whether he expects to be back.
“You know that is something that is part of the job,” Reirden said. “That is not something that I go into every day thinking about. I go into it with a plan of how to make our team better and improve our players and do it with passion, pride and work ethic, and when you don’t come up on the winning end of it, it is disappointing and you have to look at why that has happened.”
It might be more difficult to evaluate this season because of the circumstances of playing the playoffs in a bubble in Toronto following a four-and-a-half month pause due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus. But whatever conclusions general manager Brian MacLellan reaches about how to go forward will have to take into account that the clock is ticking for some of his best players.
“It’s one of those things, they played well, they were able to win and wish the best of luck to them,” Holtby said. “It’s frustrating for us that we had more to give and didn’t find a way to do that.”