The NHL spent a good decade trying to revolve their league around a Pittsburgh Penguins-Washington Capitals rivalry, and more to the point, a Sidney Crosby-Alex Ovechkin one. Unable to come up with any original ideas, because it’s the NHL, it did its best to copy the Bird-Magic dynamic from the NBA in the 80s.
The league even rejiggered their playoff system in 2014 to try to ensure more Penguins-Caps matchups, having only gotten one previously in Crosby’s and Ovechkin’s career to that point (the other point was to get Detroit to the Eastern Conference so they wouldn’t have to listen to them complain anymore. Done them a world of good, really). By going to a division-centric playoff system, the NHL removed enough water from the pool to make sure the Pens and Caps couldn’t avoid each other for too long, and it got a three-year Cold War in 2016-2018 that it longed for, with the winner of each of those three series going on to win the Cup. Whether those three series were enough to change the NHL’s outlook, we leave to you. By then, Crosby and Ovechkin were more part of the furniture than the leading lights, as good as they still are, usurped by Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews or Nathan MacKinnon, and lately Cale Makar.
Still, it’s hard to talk about one team without the other. Especially as both missed the playoffs together for the first time since Ovie and Crosby were rookies last season. What’s strange is how criminal this was seen in Pittsburgh (though given their late-season collapse, perhaps not that strange) and how ho-hum it was taken in DC. The Caps never really threatened a playoff berth all season though, whereas there seems to be more pressure on the Pens to get one more run in before Crosby, and Malkin toddle off to the farm upstate where old hockey players go. Sorry, cottage upstate.
The Pens always seem to reinvent themselves every few years, and this one’s no different with the acquisition of Erik Karlsson. Whereas the Caps still kind of look like they did in 2018, their Cup-winning season. And it seems to be fine that they do, as there aren’t any expectations on the Caps. Certainly nothing like there is on Black and Gold now.
The Caps have been struck by worse luck, at least in terms of Nicklas Backstrom having a career-altering injury, and only, supposedly, back to full strength this season. But it feels like the Caps have been far more content to just let that 2018 core get old, rehash some memories for fans, and ride the wave until it finally hits the sand.
There’s also the factor that Ovechkin is chasing down the most hallowed record in the sport. Which seems to have replaced being competitive as the Capitals’ main aim for the next two seasons.
Because let’s be clear, the Caps aren’t going to be competitive this season. Their top six is awfully old, including Ovie, and no one knows what they’ll get from Bäckström’s one hip-resurfacing surgery in his recent past. Evgeny Kuznetsov was close to woeful last season and is only getting deeper into his 30s. TJ Oshie, Tom Wilson — these are middle-six wingers at this point in their careers being asked to play like top-six because the Caps don’t have much else.
They have two competent defensemen, and John Carlson isn’t getting any younger either. They’re in a bitch of a division where we can pretty clearly state that the Canes, Devils, and Rangers are noticeably better. The Islanders and Penguins probably are too. This is an 80-point Caps team from last year whose only big addition is Max Pacioretty, who might not have two feet left and will turn 35 in November. This isn’t going anywhere.
And yet, Ovechkin’s goals will keep everyone from complaining too much. He’s 72 short of Gretzky’s 894, and considering he managed 42 even at 38 last season you’d think sometime in the 2024-2025 season is when he’ll become the game’s greatest-ever scorer (he already is when considering the difference in playing eras, but having the official title never hurts).
The Caps have always been a little warped in gearing their offense, and entire game, toward Ovechkin, which makes all the sense in the world given his historic skill. But recently it’s gotten pretty mutated. Check out the difference in where their shots come from in their Cup-winning season and how it looked last season. Guess who usually stands at that left circle?
And yet it’s all OK. While there are some Caps fans who will probably lament having only one parade for the Ovechkin era, the team was around it for a decade, or so. They were part of the center of the hockey world for that long or more. And now they’ll be witness to the greatest record-breaking in the sport, and how many other teams, and fans get to say that? Who will get to say it next? It could be decades. It might never happen. Maybe that’s worth more than another Cup.
Perhaps Ovechkin’s pursuit of the goals-record has hamstrung the Caps a bit. While they could never allow Ovie to play for another team…lots of fans have said that about a lot of Hall of Fame players. And yet so few stay in one place for their careers. But for damn sure they can’t let Ovechkin break the greatest record in another uniform.
Maybe in a different world, Backstrom’s contract looks a little different than the one that has two years left on it now. Maybe Carlson is on the trade block, and may yet still be one day soon. Same goes for Oshie. Are they chasing down Darcy Kuemper in net last summer if they know they’re trying to pivot to a new era of Caps hockey?
But they can’t now. Not when Ovechkin has this on the docket. They can’t possibly surround him with kids and whosits and whatsits for a couple seasons trying to bottom out. Someone has to get him the puck. Someone has to draw the penalties to get him on the power play. The Caps have to maintain a standard, even a low one but never the lowest, to give him a chance to pair up two more 40-goal seasons to be king.
The Caps are in the worst place you can be, kinda bad but not very bad, and nowhere near good. It’s hockey purgatory, coming with none of the draft picks, or prospects that eventually turns a team around. But no one’s going to mind, because of what’s at stake. They’ll float around for a couple years in service of Ovechkin. After all, he’s spent 15 years making the Caps relevant in a way they never had been before. Hockey purgatory is OK if you’ve got a once-in-a-lifetime accomplishment to decorate it with.
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