The Washington Capitals’ 2021-22 season ended in overtime Friday night at Capital One Arena, as the Florida Panthers sent the Caps home for the summer after a 4-3 win to take their first-round series in six games. A series that started off strong for the Capitals started to unravel late in Game 4, and as the Panthers played with more and more confidence following that overtime win as the series progressed, Washington’s play became more and more inconsistent and eventually led to the team’s fourth straight first-round exit.
Ilya Samsonov was decent in goal for Washington after taking over for Vitek Vanecek late in Game 2, but his play was overshadowed by some untimely goals allowed in both Games 5 and 6, and while his statistics were better than his regular-season performance with a .912 save percentage and a 2.97 goals-against average, his career playoff mark fell to 1-6.
Following the Game 4 loss, Washington also tended to be very passive when playing with the lead, sitting back and not pressing on the Panthers offensively. While they held a lead in the last three games of the series, they eventually yielded the tallies that led to their defeat. The Capitals led in five of the six games, with the only exception being Game 2, but could only manage a pair of wins.
While Game 6 wasn’t as spectacular a collapse as losing a 3-0 lead in Game 5, they sat back after Nicklas Backstrom’s tip-in goal 1:37 into the period gave Washington a 2-1 lead, and less than seven minutes later, Claude Giroux tied the score with a tally that Samsonov would have liked back, beating him with a shot that got through the five-hole.
Florida then took its first lead of the night with 5:43 to play, and while the Capitals forced overtime on a 6-on-4 with 63 seconds left in regulation, Carter Verhaeghe sent the Panthers into the second round for the first time since 1996 with a goal just 2:46 into the extra session.
The Capitals haven’t won a playoff series since lifting the Stanley Cup in Vegas in 2018, and in a series against the Presidents’ Trophy-winning team where there was little margin for error, Washington did themselves in with costly mistakes as the series progressed.
What Went Wrong for Washington
The series loss really was a combination of factors for Washington, but the primary issue that will be facing the Capitals this offseason will be who will be in goal next season. Samsonov certainly played well at times, particularly in the Game 3 win, but his bad habit of allowing goals at inopportune times became a real factor in the final two games.
Florida scored goals in bunches to erase the 3-0 lead in Game 5, and the Giroux tally deflated what was a loud crowd in the third period with Washington trying to hold off Florida. Samsonov’s play gave the Capitals a boost in Game 3 in his first career playoff win, but after that point, he started to become less and less effective. While not subpar, the Capitals needed him to outplay Sergei Bobrovsky to give Washington a chance, and he didn’t.
Washington bemoaned the lack of effort following the lost 3-0 lead in Game 5, and the team again didn’t play well with the lead in Game 6, losing a pair of one-goal margins within seven minutes each time (from ‘The Capitals must lean on experience to dig out of the rubble of Game 5, Washington Post, May 12, 2022). The Capitals became noticeably passive in their play with the lead, allowing some poor turnovers and inconsistent effort that the Panthers took advantage of. While Florida started the series looking like the more nervous team, as the series progressed they grew more confident, while Washington looked very tentative trying to keep a lead and failed the last three contests.
With the uneven effort, the Capitals’ trap that had frustrated the Panthers early in the series became less of a factor, as Florida adapted and even began to turn the tables and limit the Caps’ offense as the series progressed.
“I don’t think the all-in aspect was quite there in the last couple years,” Oshie told reporters afterwards (from ‘Capitals eliminated from Stanley Cup playoffs with Game 6 loss to Panthers’, The Washington Post, May 13, 2022). “This year, I think we were extremely close to being 100 percent everyone on board, and we let three games get away from us.”
Injuries also certainly played a big factor for the Capitals, as Tom Wilson only played part of the first period of Game 1 before leaving with an injury, and Alex Ovechkin certainly seemed to be bothered by his injury sustained late in the regular season, as he tended to pass more than shoot during the series, ending up with a goal and five assists. The Capitals had just three players pass the 20-goal mark this year, and one was out for most of the series, while the other was hampered by injury, and that took a toll on the Caps.
Overall, it was a series that the Capitals had to be near perfect to win, and while they were very effective in the first part of the series, it became clear that the Panthers wrested control away from Washington late in Game 4 and didn’t look back. While the Capitals had some bright spots in the six-game set, such as the penalty killing, which held the league’s fifth-best regular-season power-play unit scoreless in the series, while the power-play unit clicked at a 29.2 percent rate. T.J. Oshie scored six goals in the series for the Capitals, and was arguably the best player for Washington in the series.
However, Florida took advantage of Washington’s mistakes down the stretch, and now head into a very uncertain offseason. While there is no shame in losing in a six-game series to the top team in the NHL, the way Washington lost with uneven effort was concerning.
What Comes Next for the Capitals
After two seasons of an inconsistent tandem of Vanecek and Samsonov, the Capitals will need to make a decision with both being restricted free agents this summer. Vanecek was the steadier of the two this season, while Samsonov would be more spectacular, but also allow goals at inopportune times to hamper Washington’s effort. Neither grabbed the starting role when they had a chance to, and so it seems unlikely they will both return.
Both netminders’ low cap hits were invaluable for the salary cap the past two seasons, earning combined less than $2.75 million, and allowing the team to spend heavily in other areas. But that will change as both will be due raises this summer and keeping the pair would likely cost double what they paid this season, and for a tandem with some sizeable question marks.
Samsonov may be more attractive for Washington to trade his rights with his potential and relatively low cap number, which probably won’t rise substantially from his $2 million, one-year deal he made this season. His performance may have helped garner some interest, and he certainly has potential to be a No. 1 goaltender, but he certainly will have to improve his consistency and cut out the almost nightly bad goal allowed per game.
Vanecek’s biggest asset in a trade was his relatively low cost, as his minimal cap figure made him attractive to the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft before the Capitals reacquired him. But his going rate will likely triple next season or more, and with losing the starting role in the postseason, he may not be as attractive in the trade market as he would have been last summer.
It seems unlikely the tandem will be back for a third season, as the two combined have a 2-7 playoff mark over the past two years, and neither really took the starting role with multiple chances to do so. The only goalie Washington has under contract for next season is Zach Fucale, with Pheonix Copley becoming an unrestricted free agent, but they do keep the rights to Vanecek and Samsonov with qualifying offers, so the Capitals may opt to keep one and trade the other over the summer, and sign another goaltender to compete for the starting job with whomever they go with, which seems more likely to be Vanecek.
Defensively, Washington will have some turnover, as Justin Schultz, Michal Kempny and Matt Irwin are all unrestricted free agents, and unlikely to return, leaving the Capitals with five defensemen signed for next season. While the Capitals could look at some of their prospects in Hershey to fill the void, it seems more likely Washington tries to bring in some speed to their defense with trades or free agent signings.
Up front, Washington’s roster is mostly set for next season, with only Marcus Johansson and Johan Larsson, the two players the team acquired at the trade deadline, set for unrestricted free agency and unlikely to return.
With limited cap space and holes to fill, Washington could opt to try and clear up room by trading veterans or other moves. Nicklas Backstrom was decent in his return from a hip injury suffered last season, but at $9.2 million, will be a difficult expense. Lars Eller could be moved with the development of Connor McMichael and Hendrix Lapierre, as he carries a $3.5 million tag for one more season.
With Washington needing to fill spots and the goaltending to get much more expensive, the Capitals will need to cut somewhere to get under the cap next season. With a roster that seems to be less of a Stanley Cup contender than they had been in recent seasons, if Washington wants to try and elevate its status, they will need to make some changes and tough choices this offseason.
Author of a pair of Washington Capitals books, Transition Game and Red Rising, as well as a book on the American Hockey League, Chasing the Dream. Covered the Capitals and the NHL for the Washington Times, AOL Sports, Sporting News, SB Nation, Newsday, Tampa Tribune and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.