Capitals: Despite Crushing End, Remember this Great Season

Washington Capitals play-by-play announcer Joe Beninati described feelings of Caps fans everywhere with two simple statements on CSN post-game:

“Pardon me if I sound crushed. I am.”

Beninati poured his heart out after the Capitals fell in an emotional Game 6 to the Penguins on Tuesday. The second-round early exit is something that happens far too often, but no matter how many times it happens, it cuts deeper each and every time for the Capitals.

I was at a friend’s apartment. She’s a Penguins fan, and since there was no cable in her college dorm, and she didn’t want to miss a single second to go find a TV, she was listening to the whole thing live. As I was listening to overtime, she started to go insane, and then screamed even louder when the Penguins scored in overtime. It was tough to hear, and it was a lot to digest.

Game 6 was a hard-fought match where the Capitals rallied from a 3-0 deficit to force overtime. Unfortunately, Nick Bonino put the final nail in the coffin with the OT winner. It was a disappointing loss, one that happened in the blink of an eye.

This post is always the hardest to write. It is hard to see a team that had such a historical season, one that would go down in the franchise and NHL record books, show a lack of urgency in the playoffs and be sent home early yet again.

Caps forward and former Stanley Cup champion Justin Williams put the latest elimination simply:

“Our heart and our drive and our commitment got us back into it,” Williams told CBS of Game 6. “But the playoffs are about owning big moments and we didn’t own enough of them.”

Williams is correct. The Capitals had a season where they were unstoppable, where they could not lose to any team that came at them, and when they get to the 16 wins that truly matter, the postseason matches that make a season do-or-die, they lose their dominance. Despite their stumbles and falls in the postseason, this season has been one that fans shouldn’t feel has gone to waste, nor one they would like to forget.

[quote_left author=”Joe Beninati, CSN”]”But the way Washington rallied is a sign that this is a different team. Please do not say the word ‘collapse’ to me. Do not say the word ‘choke’ to me. This is not one of those. This is a very good Pittsburgh team that’s moving on to a Conference Final.”[/quote_left]

This was the season that Braden Holtby, who just a few years ago was a young, underdog call-up from the Hershey Bears, proved to be by far the best goaltender in the National Hockey League, earning a well-deserved Vezina nomination and Ted Lindsey nomination. It was the season where he tied Martin Brodeur for regular-season wins, and proved to be the equivalent of a brick wall through 82 games and beyond in the playoffs.

It was a season where Barry Trotz led this Washington Capitals team so far, and made an NHL team into a giant family. In my opinion, there is not a team out there that is as close-knit as Washington’s, and where every player is eager to follow the script their coach sets. His Jack Adams nomination is well earned.

This was also the season that Nicklas Backstrom finally earned a spot on the All-Star team and got recognition as among the league’s best centres. He has been underrated for far too long and now, he is seen by everyone as one of the most elite players in the game. Even Evgeny Kuznetsov joined him, and was recognized for his skill.

It was a season where Jay Beagle became an unsung hero, and more so in the playoffs. He was clutch for Washington and is by far one of the best players on the roster. Not only would he save goals from going in, but his push, backchecking ability and drive to the net was one that kept the Capitals in each and every game.

Finally, we cannot talk about this historical season without discussing the captain.

This was the season that Alex Ovechkin scored his 500th goal, becoming the fifth-fastest player in NHL history to reach that mark. At age 30, with 10 or 15 years still left in his career, Ovechkin is already one of the best goal-scorers the league has ever seen. It was a year where he won another Maurice Rocket Richard, and earned a Mark Messier Leadership nomination. He was the captain that led his team to the best record in the NHL, their second Presidents’ Trophy in six years and led his team through the good times and not-so-good times.

Whoever wants to blame Ovechkin for the loss and lack of Cups throughout the years, you need to think of how much he turned this franchise around. In the Ovechkin era, the Capitals have made eight playoff appearances, six division championships and two Eastern Conference titles. TSN’s Ian Mendes pointed out a phenomenal fact on Twitter, saying how it took Steve Yzerman 14 years to win his first Stanley Cup. One player is not to blame, and he is not the problem. It takes a team, drive, hard-work and urgency to make it far in the playoffs, and Washington has to find that combination.

There is a lot of heartbreak and sadness, but we cannot be this upset without remembering this amazing season. This is about pointing out all of the amazing things and explaining that, despite the early exit and the fact that this was not the ending that Capitals fans had hoped would happen, Washington put up a strong fight against a Pittsburgh team that is incredibly hard to beat.

The Capitals also went on last night without one of their best defensemen in Karl Alzner, who left in the first period. It was an intense Game 6 where they put up a good fight to make an incredible comeback from three goals down. Many would not think the team would win that game, nor would they even come close, but Washington did what it could. It was the lack of urgency that came back to bite them.

As Joe Beninati said, his team did not “choke,” nor did it “collapse.” They did not come out with the urgency they needed, and despite a dominant season, they could not solve the Penguins, a team that has every single thing working for them right now. This was a series that Washington fought incredibly hard, and made it the hardest playoff series that the Penguins will likely survive this postseason.

Pittsburgh is playing incredibly well this postseason, and again, all of their pieces are succeeding. Matt Murray is spectacular in net. Sidney Crosby is playmaking again. Nick Bonino is their standout star, and Kris Letang is outstanding. Even Phil Kessel is pulling his weight (no punchline intended).

The series was one full of rivalry, hard hits, anger and grit. There was just something missing, and that’s what is responsible for the early exit; there was no failure, given Washington’s unbelievable push and overall ability to outplay and match up against an incredibly successful Pittsburgh team.

As Florence + the Machine says, “It’s always darkest before the dawn.” The Capitals will come back better than ever, become bigger and learn from this heartbreak. It may be a mental thing that causes Washington to struggle in that second round, but through Trotz’s amazing coaching ability, Ovechkin’s leadership and this team’s determination and drive, this can be a team that will go far in the seasons to come.

It takes time to build a Cup team; take a look at teams like Chicago, who have been dominant in the playoffs; to make a team like that takes years, a lot of work and the right players. The time will come for Washington, but it’s not right now.