The Missing Rings is a series looking at some of the best teams in NHL history to not win the Stanley Cup. Whether they lose in the first round or game seven of the finals, these great teams have been forgotten because they could not win the big one. For the next installment, the 2015-16 Washington Capitals are the focus.
The Missing Rings: 2015-16 Washington Capitals
The 2014-15 Capitals enters the season as a bit of an unknown. For the first time in six seasons, the Caps failed to make the playoffs in 2013-14. In response to this, the Capitals fired head coach Adam Oates and general manager, George McPhee. Washington hired Barry Trotz as their new coach and promoted Brian MacLellan to GM. Many began to wonder if the Caps were missing their championship window.
The team responded during the season, however. Trotz had the team playing back at a high level. Washington finished second in the Metropolitan Division, posting 101 points, and 11 point improvement. The Caps were led by Alex Ovechkin. The great eight led the team in scoring with 53 goals and 81 points. His 53 goals were good for his third straight Rocket Richard Trophy.
The Capitals returned to the playoffs and hoped to finally breakthrough. They defeated the New York Islanders in the first round in six games. Their arch-nemesis Pittsburgh Penguins were also eliminated in the first round, to the Caps had to feel this year was breaking just right for them. Unfortunately, the New York Rangers were their opponent in the second round. The Rangers had the best record in the regular season and made quick work of those pesky Penguins. Still, Washington jumped out to a 3-1 series lead. Unfortunately, the Rangers roared back to win the last three games to eliminate the Capitals in seven games. It was a tight series as every game was decided by one goal. Two of the last three Ranger wins in the series were in overtime. The series was THAT close.
The 2015-16 Washington Capitals entered the season a bit of a question mark. While they had a talented roster, could they EVER get over the playoffs hump? Well, the Capitals looked to silence their critics right away. The Capitals dominated the NHL posting a 56-18-8 record and 120 points good for the Presidents Trophy. The Capitals were led, again, by Ovechkin. He scored 50 goals and won his fourth straight (sixth overall at the time) Rocket Richard Trophy. A new face emerged for Washington, however. Evgeny Kuznetsov let the team in scoring with 77 points.
In an effort to get over the hump, the Capitals brought in two significant players to help during the off-season. First, they signed perennial game seven hero Justin Williams in free agency. Then they traded for T.J. Oshie to give the offense a more balanced attack. Washington’s strong play earned Barry Trotz the Jack Adams Trophy as well. Heading into the playoffs, the Capitals looked like a juggernaut (again).
What Went Wrong
The Capitals roared out of the gate in the playoffs. They jumped out to a 3-0 series lead against the Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers, for their part, were not going to go down without a fight. They won games four and five to make the series a bit more uncomfortable for Washington. The Caps would win game six, a 1-0 affair, to eliminate the pesky Flyers.
Next up for Washington was… the Pittsburgh Penguins. Of course. To this point, the Penguins dominated the Capitals in the postseason. Washington’s lone series win came back in 1994. Recently, the Penguins dumped the Capitals out of the 2009 playoffs. This was also the next chapter of the Ovechkin-Sidney Crosby rivalry. Both players were considered the faces of the NHL and its top two players. The two had only met in the 2009 playoffs so the league was eager to see the superstars get reacquainted in the postseason.
Washington started the series well, earning a 4-3 overtime win in game one. The Penguins then asserted their dominance, winning three games in a row to take a stranglehold on the series. Washington forced a game six with a 3-1 win in game five. That’s as close as it would get for the Caps. They would drop game six in overtime to again, crash out of the playoffs at the hands of the Penguins.
Like in 2009, Washington would have to watch Pittsburgh raise the cup at the end of the playoffs. Undoubtedly another tough pill to swallow. The Capitals would be back again, however, winning the Presidents Trophy in 2016-17. Again expectations were high. In the playoffs, the Capitals AGAIN faced the Penguins. Again, the Penguins eliminated Washington, this time in seven games on route to their second consecutive Cup.
The team and fans must have been thinking this extremely talented Capitals team was never going to get over the hump, especially if Sidney Crosby and the Penguins stood in their way. In 2018 the Capitals, again, were hoping to (finally) get over the hump but there was definitely less buzz around the team. Again, in the second round, they faced those damn Penguins. This time, however, something was different. This time the Capitals were controlling the play. They looked like the better team. This time, they won. The Capitals eliminated the Penguins in six games, propelling them past Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Finals and the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup Finals to win their first-ever Cup.
While the overall story has a happy ending for the Capitals, it does not negate the fact that the 2015-16 Washington Capitals were a great team that came up short. It’s an interesting exercise to imagine what could have been with the Capitals. They have put together some of the most exciting and successful regular-season teams in NHL history. If only they could have capitalized on their success, they might have been a modern NHL dynasty.