What’s next for Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals after their agonizing 2-1 overtime loss to the New York Rangers in Game 7 of their Stanley Cup second round series? Shaving facial hair should be a priority – closely followed by a long reflection on everything that was magnificent about their season and about that game inside Madison Square Garden – because there was nothing bad about how the Capitals bowed out of the postseason.
Before Wednesday night, the last time the Capitals were eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs was after an appalling 5-0 loss at home to the Rangers in 2013. Comparing that game with Wednesday’s defeat is like comparing Braden Holtby’s beard with Nicklas Backstrom’s – night and day. Last night’s Game 7 was one of the best games of hockey chalked up in a long time. It was a classic for the ages.
And that’s what makes this Game 7 defeat harder to swallow than the other recent Game 7 defeats for the Capitals. Everything was different in this final showdown. But, there is a new era dawning in our nation’s Capital. This was not your regular Capitals series disappointment, and anybody who teases a Caps fan with “Ah, same old Caps … they blew it again … etc.,” doesn’t know anything about hockey.
Ultimately, the Capitals/Rangers Game 7 this year was a story of two goalies; one is a legend, the other is a future legend. Henrik Lundqvist and Braden Holtby delivered the goods in a tense standoff between two immaculate netminders. Lundqvist made 35 saves on the night, while Holtby tallied 37 – and only a few of those 72 combined saves was easy. It was The King’s NHL record-extending seventh straight Game 7 win, but his counterpart had nothing to be ashamed of. Holtby’s performance in this game, the series, the first round series against the New York Islanders and during the regular season have all catapulted the young goalie from an also-ran into a major contender – and that is the biggest positive to take away from the 2014-15 Capitals season. The goalie conundrum is solved once and for all.
There were other positives too, not least of which was head coach Barry Trotz. Taking over a team with a superstar (Alex Ovechkin) on its books is never easy, because the hockey world automatically scrutinizes the relationship and looks for ways to point the finger when things go wrong. It’s harder still when one considers that Ovechkin has worked for four very different head coaches over the past five seasons with mixed results. But whatever Trotz did this season worked. Not only did Ovechkin have his best season and goal tally in years, so did many other forwards on the team including Jay Beagle and Marcus Johansson. The defense was the best in over a decade too, and the two rookies (Andre Burkaovsky and Evgeny Kuznetsov) were outstanding, especially during the playoffs. With Trotz though, what he says is just as important as what he does.
“Defeat is not your undertaker; it should be your teacher,” said a proud Trotz when describing what he told his players immediately after the defeat Wednesday night. “I think my top guys delivered tonight, all the top guys delivered. They were great today. They grew tonight. People went after Alex for saying what he did. He was really strong. He got our goal.”
Ovechkin Hears Praise
Speaking of Ovechkin and what he said, it’s true that he must now eat humble pie for ‘guaranteeing’ that his team would defeat the Rangers, but the effort, grit and determination that Ovi put into Game 7 was correctly applauded by NHL pundits, Rangers personnel, Capitals personnel and many others. Ovechkin’s bold statement after Game 6 did not come to fruition, but it certainly was not for lack of trying. He was hard-hitting, all over the ice and he scored the opening goal. Ovechkin’s performance was another major positive to take away from Wednesday’s defeat.
WATCH: NBC Sports’ Pierre McGuire offers high praise for Alex Ovechkin
To put things further into perspective, this second round series featured seven games all decided by just one goal; there were two overtime games and the aggregate score was 13-12 in favor of the Rangers. Those facts are, as my teenaged son would put it, ‘sick.’ Let us also not forgot that if Brooks Orpik had moved his skate a few centimeters to the right with 1:41 left in Game 5, the Capitals would have almost certainly advanced to the Stanley Cup Conference Final. A Rangers’ shot propelled off Orpik’s blade and found the net to force overtime that night – and the Rangers stayed alive in the series by converting in the extra period.
Capitals Are Better Now Than Ever
So, the Capitals must now lick their wounds and get ready for the offseason. However, unlike every other offseason over the past 10 years, the team does not have to re-invent itself. The Capitals ended their season with their pride intact and their heads held high because in Wednesday’s Game 7, it did not come down to a lack of determination, a lack of strength, a lack of concentration, or a lack of talent; no, it came down to a lucky bounce when the hockey gods flipped the puck directly onto Derek Stepan’s stick in the overtime and he scored.
Trotz put everything into perspective for his Capitals team and gave us all the final word:
“You can talk history all you want,” he said. “This is a new group, this is a new team. Our organization is changing, but we’re learning from our history. We’re looking it right in the eye … You’re going to see the Washington Capitals back here again.”
Anybody who knows anything about the NHL and hockey will agree with Trotz. The Stanley Cup will come to Washington in the 2010s.