Capitals fall short in first round of playoffs due to age, injuries

The Washington Capitals were eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs by the Boston Bruins, losing 3-1 in Game 5 of the best-of-7 Stanley Cup First Round at Capital One Arena on Sunday. 

The Capitals went 36-15-5 to finish second in the MassMutual East Division, four points ahead of the third-place Bruins. But Washington lost four straight games after winning 3-2 in overtime in Game 1, including Games 2 and 3 in OT after leading in the third period of each.

Here’s a look at what happened during the 2021 postseason for the Capitals and why things could be even better next season:

The Skinny

Potential unrestricted free agents: Alex Ovechkin, F; Michael Raffl, F; Daniel Carr, F; Philippe Maillet, F; Zdeno Chara, D; Paul LaDue, D; Craig Anderson, G

Potential restricted free agents: Garret Pilon, F; Ilya Samsonov, G

Potential 2021 NHL Draft picks: 5

What went wrong 

Age, injuries: With 13 players at least 30 years old, the Capitals seemed to wear down during the compacted 56-game regular-season. Ovechkin, 35, along with forwards Nicklas Backstrom, 33, and T.J. Oshie, 34, and defensemen John Carlson, 31, and Justin Schultz, 30, each missed games late in the regular season because of a lower-body injury.

Then 25-year-old rookie goalie Vitek Vanecek sustained a lower-body injury in the first period of Game 1 that kept him out for the remainder of the series, and 32-year-old center Lars Eller (lower body) did not play Game 3. Although the Capitals eventually had their full lineup (other than Vanecek), with Samsonov and center Evgeny Kuznetsov returning from NHL COVID-19 protocol for Game 3, some of their players appeared to be playing at less than 100 percent.

Top-six scoring dried up: Depth forwards Nic Dowd (two goals), Garnet Hathaway (two goals, one assist) and Conor Sheary (one goal) contributed offensively, but the Capitals received little from their top two lines. Tom Wilson‘s goal that opened the scoring 6:22 into Game 1 was their lone even-strength goal from a top-six forward in the series. 

Power-play issues: The man-advantage was a strength for the Capitals during the regular season, finishing third in the NHL at 24.8 percent. But it struggled against the Bruins, going 3-for-21 (14.3 percent), including 1-for-11 with 13 shots on goal in the last two games of the series. Offensive-zone entries and getting shots to the net were the biggest issues.

Reasons for optimism

Ovechkin-Leonsis relationship: Although Ovechkin can become an unrestricted free agent, his strong relationship with Capitals owner Ted Leonsis during his 16 NHL seasons and both sides saying they are unconcerned about getting a new contract done are good reasons to believe he’ll be re-signed. That will keep Ovechkin with the Capitals to continue his climb up the NHL goals list. He is one behind Marcel Dionne for fifth with 730.

McMichael on his way: Connor McMichael, the No. 25 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, had an impressive first season as professional in the American Hockey League, leading Hershey with 14 goals and 27 points in 33 games. The 20-year-old center also made his NHL debut against the Buffalo Sabres on Jan. 24 and could have a chance to earn a spot in the Capitals lineup during training camp next season.

Samsonov maturing: The 24-year-old goalie had a tumultuous second NHL season that included two stints in COVID-19 protocol. But Samsonov’s play after returning with little practice time for the final three games against the Bruins was encouraging. He made 40 saves before a miscommunication with Schultz led to the winning goal in a 3-2 double-overtime loss in Game 3. Samsonov shrugged that off to make 22 saves in the first two periods of Game 4 before Boston pulled away to win 4-1.

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