The Washington Capitals were maddeningly inconsistent and had mediocre goaltending during the regular season while the Panthers set a salary cap record for most goals in a season (340) and won the Presidents’ Trophy. The two teams’ first-round series didn’t seem likely to be competitive. Instead, the eighth-seeded Capitals pushed the Atlantic Division fields to the brink.
The Capitals played physical against the Panthers and committed to a suffocating defensive game. “We can play offensive hockey in the beer league in the summer, right?” observed Evgeny Kuznetsov during the series. The Capitals mostly got fantastic goaltending from Ilya Samsonov in five games played.
The Capitals managed to take a 2-1 series lead in Game Three, but they could not close it out. Despite having leads during the next three games, the Capitals lost Games Four, Five, and Six, and were first-rounded for the fourth consecutive season.
The Caps have not won a playoff series since 2018 when they won their only Stanley Cup in franchise history. After falling to the Panthers 4-3 in overtime, uncomfortable questions were raised to the team’s leadership group, including if its aging core is able to win another championship. Alex Ovechkin is 36, TJ Oshie is 35, Nicklas Backstrom is 34 and coming off a hip injury that kept him out the first few months of the season, and John Carlson is 32. The first-pairing defenseman was on the ice for every Panthers ‘ goal (four) that was scored in the decisive Game Six.
“Well, I think you can see how we play against the best team in the regular season,” Ovechkin said. “We have it, we just blew it away. It’s on us. It’s on me, it’s on Backy, it’s on Osh, it’s on Carly, it’s on everybody. It’s kind of af***ed up situation.”
“The last three games have been in our hands,” TJ Oshie added. “That comes down to finding a way to get the job done. The last couple years, we’ve been down and teams have had their way with us. I don’t think the all-in aspect was quite there in the last couple years. This year, I think we were extremely close to being 100 percent everyone on board. And we let three games get away from us. In playoffs, the margin of error is so small. One bad bounce or one missed read can change the whole momentum of a game and all of a sudden – thinking you’re going to their barn up 3-1, it’s 2-2; up 3-0, lose 5-3; now come here up 2-1, and I think it was under 10 minutes maybe, and then all of a sudden we’re down one the last couple minutes. Things happen fast. We just didn’t shut the door. There’s no other way to put it.”
After lifting Lord Stanley’s chalice, the Capitals were unable to repeat as champions in 2019, losing in seven games to the forecheck-you-to-death Carolina Hurricanes. In the 2020 Bubble Loffs, which was a very weird time in our world due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Capitals ran into former head coach Barry Trotz and never seemed to find their game, losing in five games. There were rumblings of players not taking the experience seriously. Todd Reirden was fired and Peter Laviolette entered the picture. Not much changed. In 2021, the Capitals again were eliminated in five games, but this time by the Boston Bruins. That year, the Capitals had injury issues to its top stars.
2022 seemed unlikely to be different, but it was. Against the Florida Panthers, the Capitals were out-attempted in the series at five-on-five 56 percent to 44 percent, but the Capitals kept most of that offense to the outside. The Capitals, incredibly, managed to have more high-danger chances overall in the series, 60 to 57. The Capitals lost in the expected goals stat, but narrowly: 12.54 to 13.32. The Capitals also gave up no power-play goals to Florida during the series (0-18). Florida was the only team in the first round not to score a PPG.
“Their offense is very good,” Nicklas Backstrom said. “It doesn’t take a lot to get them going. When they get a goal, they get fired up and then they start rolling. Just looking at this series, we basically gave it to them.”
Game Six was the only game the Capitals out-attempted the Panthers at five-on-five (51.4% to 48.6%), but two iffy goals given up by Samsonov made the Capitals chase the game.
“We played against a team that proved to be the top team in the league,” Peter Laviolette said. “Played them hard and the games could have gone either way. They just didn’t go our way. I think that’s the part that you’ve got to let sit in your stomach for a while.”
In overtime of Game Six, Martin Fehervary reversed the puck to Carlson, but the two-time Norris Trophy finalist could not corral the puck out of midair and clear the zone. The puck eventually found its way to Carter Verhaeghe who scored his sixth goal in the first-round series.
“It goes back to what TJ said,” Carlson said. “Is everyone investing? Obviously, right off the bat, that makes it sting worse (because they were).”
The most pivotal play of the entire series ended up being Garnet Hathway’s miss of an empty-net goal by inches during Game Four. The Panthers tied a minute later and won in overtime again via a Verhaeghe goal.
“It didn’t (happen),” Laviolette said. “You can’t live in that world. You’ve got to close the door.”