A pivotal moment in Washington Capitals franchise history awaits on Wednesday night.
The Capitals have erased a 3-1 deficit against the Pittsburgh Penguins to force a Game 7 with a berth in the Eastern Conference finals on the line. This is big. The Capitals have lived as Stanley Cup contenders for over a decade now, but have never reached the Eastern Conference finals in that stretch.
Playoff failure and early exits have come to define D.C.’s beloved hockey team, and the Penguins are intertwined in that story. Game 7 represents a final step in a story with two different endings. A win over their rivals would mean a peak reached after a decade of disappointment. A loss would mean more humiliation.
So let’s explain why, walking back through the last 13 years of Capitals playoff history to examine why this Game 7 is so important.
2004 — Capitals draft Alexander Ovechkin first overall
The centerpiece Washington built these Cup contenders around for more than a decade now. When Ovechkin pulled that Capitals sweater on for the first time, the Cup window in D.C. officially opened. It hasn’t closed yet.
By the way: Evgeni Malkin went second overall to the Penguins. In some alternate universe, Ovechkin is a Penguin.
2007-08 — Capitals make the playoffs with Ovechkin
Notable for a couple of reasons. First, it was the first time the Capitals had qualified since bottoming out and drafting Ovechkin.
It was also the start of a four-year run of Southeast Division wins. Washington had arrived as true Cup contenders. And Ovechkin (65 goals, 112 points) and Nicklas Backstrom (69 points) had arrived as true NHL stars. Ovechkin won the Hart Trophy, the Art Ross, and the Rocket Richard. Bruce Boudreau won the Jack Adams.
But the Capitals bowed out to the Flyers in the first round. No sweat, though. Philly had a nearly identical record that year.
2008-09 — The first Capitals-Penguins playoff series
Pittsburgh won the Stanley Cup that year, as you’ll recall. But the Capitals were among the best NHL teams again, finishing atop the Southeast with 108 points. This is the first season Ovechkin starts to earn criticism from media for his personality.
But like the year before, they needed seven games to finish out the first round. They barely did so, squeezing by the Rangers with a 2-1 win on the back of goalie Semyon Varlamov.
This is where playoff disappointments started to haunt the Capitals, who went up 2-0 in the second round on the Penguins before losing in seven games. Game 7 was a rout, too: Crosby had two goals and three points in the 6-2 Penguins win. It was a humiliating end to another promising season and the start of a trend.
2009-10 — Another shocking first-round exit
Ah, the Presidents’ Trophy. Washington won it that year with ease, their 121 regular season points well ahead of any other NHL team. Ovechkin scored 50 goals again. This was their year.
Until it wasn’t. Washington matched up with the No. 8 seed Montreal Canadiens, who barely snuck into the final Eastern wild card by one measly point. The Capitals then got “Halak’d;” the NHL’s highest-scoring team was unable to score consistently on Habs goalie Jaroslav Halak, who held the Capitals to three goals in the final three games. Washington was eliminated early again.
2010-11 — Swept out of the Conference semifinals
The Capitals didn’t change much heading into the next season other than locking up Backstrom with a 10-year deal and signing Marcus Johansson to a three-year deal. Even after three years of disappointments, this was the core the Capitals were going to stick with. In hindsight, the right choice.
It didn’t immediately pay off, of course. Another division win (the fourth in a row) was wasted with a sweep by the Lightning in the second round. All of those wins and awards still hadn’t amounted to a conference final appearance at this point.
2011-12 — Bruce gets the ax after another first-round loss
Washington took a step back this season despite making some big moves to push them further. Semyon Varlamov was traded to Colorado for picks. Joel Ward signed in free agency, as did goalie Tomas Vokoun. The Capitals also traded for Troy Brouwer. The hope was Ward and Brouwer could provide some grit and heavy play the skilled Capitals had lacked in previous years.
They did, but not in time to save Boudreau’s job. The Capitals fired Boudreau after his decision to bench Ovechkin and Alexander Semin early in the season didn’t actually help. Dale Hunter stepped in and the Caps lost again in the first round.
At this point, dogging Ovechkin’s play is catnip for broadcasters. The pressure of playoff failures becomes Ovechkin’s burden to carry.
2014-15 — Washington turns to a Nashville legend to help, to no avail
After two years in the wilderness and a season after missing the playoffs for the first time in six years, Washington hired former Predators bench boss Barry Trotz. Trotz’s defensive structure led the Predators to decades of success, and he has helped the Caps since his arrival. Washington finished second in the Metro in his first season and played well in the playoffs.
After surviving a seven-game series with the Islanders, the Capitals ran up a 3-1 series lead on the Rangers in the conference semis. The reason? Braden Holtby had emerged as an elite NHL goalie. The final piece of the puzzle, it seemed.
And it fell apart. The Capitals lost three straight games, and Derek Stepan drove the final dagger home.
Owner Ted Leonsis fires GM George McPhee, who had been with the club since 1997. Assistant GM Brian MacLellan is promoted.
2015-16 — Big moves hint at Caps’ desperation setting in
As each year passes with another shot at the Conference Final eluding the Capitals, GM Brian MacLellan makes bigger and bigger moves to get his team over the hump. In the offseason, MacLellan trades Troy Brouwer to St. Louis for talented winger T.J. Oshie. He signs Kings playoff hero Justin Williams. He lets Ward, Eric Fehr, and Mike Green leave in free agency and uses the spare cash to lock up Evgeny Kuznetsov and Holtby long-term.
All of this does pay off. The Capitals are deeper than ever. Kuznetsov leads them in points, and Williams and Oshie both eclipse the 50-point plateau. Not to mention that their blue line is deep and versatile, with two-way players like John Carlson and Matt Niskanen, emerging young offensive D-men like Dmitry Orlov, and defense-first types like Karl Alzner. The Capitals have drafted and signed and developed well. It pays off with another Presidents’ Trophy, and Holtby wins the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best goalie.
Washington loses to the Penguins in the second round, 4-2. They watch from the sidelines as their rival Penguins, left for dead midseason amid coaching changes and seemingly spare parts, win the Stanley Cup.
2016-17 — Capitals force a Game 7 with Pittsburgh ... and lose again
This story did not end well despite a glimmer of hope. Washington made another huge move in the spring, trading for Kevin Shattenkirk at the trade deadline. For awhile there, it looked like another failure being written. Shattenkirk has had an awful playoffs. Holtby struggled mightily in the first round and early as the Penguins ran up a 3-1 series lead.
But over Games 5 and 6, the Capitals emerged. The Good Capitals, mind you. Their stars started scoring again, and Holtby made some great saves. This is a Penguins team they should have beaten: Kris Letang was out, Crosby had a concussion, Marc-Andre Fleury was back in net and a rookie (Jake Guentzel) was leading them offensively.
The Capitals could finally, finally, exorcise a decade-long demon in Game 7.
They got shutout by Fleury and the Penguins. Another chapter in the Ovechkin era closes with a period instead of an exclamation mark.