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Questions abound after Washington Capitals’ early playoff exit

A 4-3 loss in overtime to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Semifinals on Tuesday night marked the end of the Washington Capitals’ landmark season. After leading the rest of the National Hockey League for most of the year, a team that showed so much promise suffered a second-round exit in the playoffs.

Eagle staffers Leo Versel and Vincent Salandro address the three major questions that face the Capitals after an abrupt end to their season.


Should this season be considered a failure for the Capitals?


Leo Versel: Although the Capitals have experienced an unexpected early exit from the playoffs, a team that attained so much success during the regular 2015-2016 NHL season has little reason to bow their heads.

This season, Capitals players tied NHL records, and in some cases, broke them. Caps goalkeeper Braden Holtby tied the NHL record for 48 wins by a goalie, helping his team improve to a league-leading 56-18 record this season.

Russian winger and team captain Alex Ovechkin became the first Russian-born NHL player to reach the 500-goal mark. He also finished with his third straight 50-goal season, his seventh overall, putting him in the same league as NHL greats Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy.

And most importantly, the Capitals made it to the second round of the playoffs under the guidance of Barry Trotz, for the second consecutive season. Nothing to be ashamed of.

Sure, it was disappointing to see the NHL title favorites get knocked out of the playoffs by a lesser team in a hotly-contested series. The Caps were unable to complete their comeback last night after trailing 3-0 early in the game.

But if they keep playing the way they have this past season, and if their star players keep up their determination and high caliber of play, they have a strong chance of making their way to the Eastern Conference finals in 2017, and potentially to their first NHL title.


Vincent Salandro: In a word: yes.

The Washington Capitals won the President’s Trophy, awarded to the team that finishes with the most points during the NHL regular season. They had the leading goal-scorer in the league, Alexander Ovechkin, and the second most prolific offense in the league, scoring 3.02 goals per game. They also had a goaltender, Braden Holtby, who led the league in wins and was fifth in goals against per game (2.0).

The Capitals improved their roster this season by adding proven scorer T.J. Oshie, playoff veteran forward Justin Williams and Stanley Cup-winning defenseman Brooks Orpik. Yet they still failed to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, a goal they have reached only once since joining the league as an expansion team in 1974. To add insult to injury, the 2016 team was believed to be the Capitals’ best team since drafting Alexander Ovechkin in 2004.

When all these factors are considered, it's hard to chalk up the Capitals’ second round loss as anything other than a failure. This was a year when the Capitals were supposed to finally overcome their playoff struggles, but instead they found themselves in a very familiar place: watching the championship rounds of the playoffs unfold on their televisions rather than on the ice.


What, or who, is to blame after another early playoff exit?


LV: After a solid all-around season for the Capitals, it’s difficult to identify a scapegoat for their second-round struggles.

An offense that had been so dominant during the regular season faltered against Pittsburgh in the postseason, scoring only 15 goals against the Penguins in six games. But even then, the Penguins scored just 16 goals over the series, so the goal differential between both teams is not substantial enough to account for the Caps’ exit.

Perhaps the Capitals’ lack of mental toughness had something to do with it. However, that’s not entirely true, either. The Caps’ resiliency showed against Pittsburgh, notably in the final game of the series in which they forced an overtime period after trailing 3-0 for essentially the whole game.

Another potential reason for the Capitals’ exit could be insufficient playoff experience for the team. But the Caps have qualified for the playoffs in four of their last five seasons and their starting six have played for the team for several years.

The only answer I can provide for this perplexing question is the Capitals being outplayed by a hungrier and more determined team.


VS: When things go wrong for any team, the first place fingers usually point is to the star players. However, in the case of the Capitals, it is hard to place blame solely on the shoulders of Ovechkin, Oshie, Holtby or Nicklas Backstrom. Each had their moments in the series against the Penguins; however, unfortunately for the Capitals, the four never seemed to all playing their best at the same time.

Another easy incident to point at would be Brooks Orpik’s hit on the Penguins’ Olli Maatta in Game 2 that earned the Capitals’ defender a three-game suspension. The Capitals lost two of three games without the defenseman, but placing blame on a solitary incident fails to capture the source of the Capitals’ failures.

The Capitals quite simply did not score enough goals to give themselves a chance in this series. An offense that was so free-flowing and high-scoring in the regular season was stumped by a rookie goaltender, Matt Murray. Head coach Barry Trotz must be especially disappointed because when his team was able to sustain consistent pressure on the Penguins in the third periods of Games 3 and 6, young Murray struggled and allowed several soft goals.


What’s next for the Capitals?


LV: The Capitals clearly have an abundance of talented players and a lot of potential, as seen by their performance this season. I think it is a good idea to not make any changes to the team during the offseason, and instead let the players continue to gel as teammates.

I also think keeping Trotz as head coach is crucial. His leadership has done a lot of good for the franchise in the two seasons he’s been with Washington.

In my opinion, the biggest area of improvement for the Capitals must be their postseason defense. The Caps allowed 191 goals over 82 regular season games, averaging about 1.3 goals against per game, which is superb.

But in the postseason, the defense broke down in the second round. While the Capitals were able to hold the Philadelphia Flyers to six goals in six games during the first round of their postseason, they allowed 16 in six against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The average of goals against the Caps’ during their series with the Penguins was more than double the amount they allowed during the regular season (2.66).

The Capitals have a lot to be proud of as this season concludes. While they did not make it past the second round, the Caps always have next year to prove themselves as a championship-ready team.


VS: The thing that is most important for the Capitals during the offseason is to quickly put this loss behind them. The Capitals have an immensely strong roster littered with talent and class. The only thing missing is strong playoff performances. Year after year, the Capitals repeat the same pattern of excelling in the regular season and falling short in the playoffs.

The loss to the Penguins illustrated a prominent shortcoming for the Capitals over the years: an inability to adapt to their opponents’ style of play. The Capitals were unable to slow down the Penguins or invoke a style of their own in the series, and that is what ultimately sealed their fate.

Going forward, the Capitals need to establish a plan B and be willing to adjust when they are unable to play their style of hockey. Whether the Capitals need to bring in players or can make changes organically with their current roster remains to be seen. One things is for sure: the Capitals cannot keep playing without a backup plan and expect their poor playoff results to change anytime soon.


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