Bryan Rust #17 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates scoring a second period goal with teammates Sidney Crosby #87, Ian Cole #28 and Jake Guentzel against the Washington Capitals in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Second Round during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Verizon Center on May 10, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
It was an amazing sight: 50 or so Penguins fans on the steps of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., just across the street from the Verizon Center, derisively chanting “YOU CAN’T BEAT US!”
The Washington Capitals can’t beat the Penguins. Not when the game has meaning. The teams have met 10 times in the playoffs. The Penguins have won every time but once. (What the heck happened in 1994?)
But this is more about the Capitals than it is the matchup.
The Capitals have made the playoffs nine of the last 10 seasons. They haven’t made it past the second round. That’s well-documented.
But in those nine eliminations, the Capitals have lost to a lower seed seven times. The Capitals usually earn home ice. Record-wise, they have superior teams. But the Capitals just keep getting “upset.” (“Upset” is in quotes because, at some point, it’s no longer an upset. It’s just the Capitals.)
The last two years may be the low point: The Capitals won the Presidents’ Trophy both seasons as the NHL’s regular-season champ but twice got deleted by the Penguins, a rival in the same way the windshield rivals the bug.
This off-season, the Capitals may lose five key regulars to unrestricted free agency: Defensemen Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk, and forwards T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams and Daniel Winnik.
The Capitals should offer to drive Shattenkirk and Winnik to the airport. Shattenkirk is useless five-on-five and is the most disappointing big-name trade-deadline acquisition in years. Winnik shot a breakaway well wide in Game 7 Wednesday. That actually wasn’t surprising.
Alzner, Oshie and Williams are good players. The Capitals could look appreciably different next season.
But no matter who the Capitals keep or lose, and no matter what Alex Ovechkin’s future may be, don’t expect the result to be better.
The Capitals are gutless. It’s sewn into the uniform and inherited by each generation of draft picks, trade acquisitions and free-agent signings.
That’s a harsh description.
But how else can such failure despite a wealth of resources possibly be explained? Tell me a nice way to describe the Capitals’ last 10 seasons.
Ovechkin and goaltender Braden Holtby provide a microcosm. Ovechkin is a generational goal-scorer. Holtby won the Vezina Trophy as hockey’s top goalie in 2015-16 and is a finalist this season.
But Holtby allowed Patric Hornqvist to net a backhand from the top of the circle in Game 7. It was an absurdly soft goal given the situation. Defensive-zone gaffes by Ovechkin led to both Penguins goals.
Now it’s said that Ovechkin was playing hurt. How convenient.
Oh, and the playoff format wasn’t fair. Funny, it seemed fair to the Penguins.
Barry Trotz is the perfect coach for the Capitals: His NHL teams have made the playoffs 10 times, but never a conference final. It’s an ideal fit. Trotz’s old club, Nashville, is in the Western Conference final – which the Predators failed to make in seven postseason appearances under Trotz.
What should the Capitals do now?
Some analysts, including ESPN’s Barry Melrose, call for Ovechkin to be traded. But Ovechkin sells a lot of tickets and moves a lot of merchandise. The team that trades a superstar very rarely wins the deal.
But is Ovechkin, 31, still a superstar? He netted just 16 even-strength goals this season.
Trotz is vastly overrated. Firing him might be considered. But there aren’t many good head coaches available.
What the Capitals mostly need is a group discount on heart transplants. When Hornqvist scored to make it 2-0 Wednesday, they rolled over and died.
Washington signed Brooks Orpik, who won the Stanley Cup in 2009 with the Penguins, to teach the Capitals how to win. The Capitals taught Orpik how to lose. When Orpik fought Scott Wilson during the third period Wednesday, he probably pretended he was punching his agent.
Same with Williams: “Mr. Game 7” and a three-time Stanley Cup champion before he got to Washington. Now, he’s just another choker.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).