So what do you want them to say? They’ve answered all these questions before.
“I expect the same questions over and over again,” said Nicklas Backstrom, “when you lose.”
Do you want them to pretend there’s no pattern here, that the Ovechkin/Backstrom Capitals haven’t made the playoffs nine out of 10 years, and failed to make it past the second round each and every time? That history doesn’t fold and pile on top of itself until it becomes suffocating?
“I don’t really look at it that way, to be honest with you,” Brooks Orpik said. “...I think every year you come in, it’s a different group. And obviously some guys have endured more of those tough losses than other guys. But I think every year you’re kind of taking the challenge upon ourselves with a different group.”
Do you want them to seek solace in the fact that they were the better-playing team, not just for two-thirds of last night’s Game 7, but for the majority of this series. Is there a moral victory in being the first team to outshoot its opponents in every game and still lose the series since the Coyotes upset Chicago in 2012? Do completely fluky, no-fault failed scoring opportunities like this mean they didn’t do enough?
“It’s just extreme disappointment,” Karl Alzner said. “There are times when you know you’re not the best team in the playoffs. But we honestly thought we were the best team in the playoffs, and showed flashes of it. But when you don’t even get past the second round, it’s extreme disappointment.”
Or do you want them to suffer this on an existential level, with the knowledge that this was the best and most talented Capitals team ever assembled, and it was also the second year of a two-year window, as the GM put it last year, the last chance to do something great before some crucial, painful offseason decisions?
“You wonder how much disappointment you have to put yourself through before you can find a way to get the job done,” T.J. Oshie said.
“I don’t know,” Alex Ovechkin said, almost inaudibly. “We’re trying. Again,” and he sighed deeply. “Uh, we try to do our best.”
I’ve given this blog over to the blockquotes because I myself don’t really have much to offer. I’m baffled that this keeps happening, but no individual lost series over the last decade is inexplicable on its own. The Caps were very good—maybe, probably, the best team in the NHL this season, a statement I make entirely independently of their Presidents’ Trophy. In a more fairly seeded playoff bracket, the Capitals likely roll the Rangers or Senators or anyone who’s not the Penguins. But skill is skill and luck is luck and only sometimes the twain shall meet. And Pittsburgh, down Kris Letang for the series and a healthy Sidney Crosby for much of it, did everything they needed to do to win—there is no need to invoke a curse to explain Marc-Andre Fleury taking over when he had to. A team loses, and the simplest answer is usually that another team beat them.
The Capitals are not done, but the team that comes back to try again next year will look very different. Eleven players, nearly half the roster, have contracts that are up this summer. Some significant UFAs won’t be back—Oshie, Justin Williams, and Kevin Shattenkirk are the likeliest. Maybe even Karl Alzner? But even more pressing will be getting deals, potentially big ones, done with RFAs like Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, and Dmitry Orlov. The structure and size of those deals will go a long way toward determining what the Capitals have left to spend.
Ovechkin will still be here. Backstrom will be here. Both have plenty left in the tank. Braden Holtby will be here. Kuznetsov and Burakovsky will be here for a while. There’s plenty to keep the Capitals relevant. But if being megatalented has only ever been enough to make them playoff also-rans, what can Washington fans really expect from the patched-together aftermath of a team that was built to win now, and didn’t? Their only real hope going forward would involve postseason overachievement. And to that, there’s really not much to say.