The Washington Capitals were a shell of their usual selves during their five-game first-round defeat to the Boston Bruins.
On Tuesday, the “why” became a bit clearer. Speaking to the media for the final time before pivoting to the offseason, several of the Capitals’ top players revealed they played through injuries in the playoffs, including Alex Ovechkin, John Carlson, T.J. Oshie and Lars Eller (although Eller and goaltender Vitek Vanecek were the only Capitals players to actually miss time due to injury in the postseason).
The season’s compressed 56-game schedule led to an increased number of soft tissue (muscles, tendons and ligaments) injuries, according to defenseman Brenden Dillon.
None of the Capitals players who spoke Tuesday attempted to attribute their third straight first round exit to their aliments. However, it is clear injuries were a factor in the series.
“This year I think injuries took a toll on us,” general manager Brian MacLellan said Wednesday. “We just kind of continually ran into it. We never caught up. We were always chasing injuries. ... Ours happened at the wrong time.”
The Capitals were the oldest team in the league, which MacLellan admitted “might have been a factor.” The GM said the team will look to field a younger roster next season.
In the playoffs, Ovechkin, Carlson, Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom, usually the Capitals’ top weapons, did not play well on either side of the puck, and all of them suffered injuries late in the season before returning to the ice for the first round. Eller was injured in Game 2 of the series and missed Game 3. Vanecek was injured in Game 1 with a lower-body injury that would have kept him out for at least the start of the second round.
Ilya Samsonov and Evgeny Kuznetsov were unable to play until Game 3 after being placed on the NHL’s COVID protocol list earlier in the month. Kuznetsov contracted COVID-19 for the second time this season, and he said he struggled with his fitness upon returning to the lineup.
“It’s tough to evaluate what effect that had on his performance,” MacLellan said of Kuznetsov’s bout with COVID-19. “I don’t any of the health experts have an answer. How does that effect an athlete aerobically? We’re trying to figure it out.”
According to Russia Hockey, the Capitals will not let Samsonov, who became the starting netminder after Craig Anderson initially took over for Vanecek, participate in the World Championships because of “medical reasons” that will require two weeks of “rehabilitation.” On Wednesday, MacLellan and head coach Peter Laviolette expressed displeasure at the way the young goaltender has handled himself off the ice as a member of the Capitals.
Backstrom, who led the team in regular-season scoring with 53 points, missed the second-to-last game of the regular season with a lower-body injury after making it through the previous 55 games. He never fully recovered despite being in the lineup for the start of the postseason. The 33-year-old center was hampered against the Bruins. He often lacked mobility and speed, and was rarely an offensive threat; in fact, he recorded just one point, an assist, for the second straight postseason.
“Backy had a great year for me and then ran into some injury problems,” MacLellan said. “It caught up with him at the end.”
As for second-leading point producer defenseman John Carlson, he had a knee injury that caused him to miss the final two games of the regular season. It is severe enough it may require surgery.
“I would have liked to have felt better,” Carlson said. “It’s just the nature of the sport.”
Carlson’s playoff performance was a nightmare. Like Backstrom, he lacked mobility (an area which is usually a strength of his), missed defensive assignments and - most noticeably - struggled offensively. He finished with just two assists, and has not scored a playoff goal since 2018, when the Capitals won the Stanley Cup.
Oshie, who finished the regular season second on the team in goals and third in points, often missed practices and morning skates during the playoffs. He was out the final game of the regular season.
“I kind of got opened up with two games left and just got a little tweak in the midsection area,” Oshie said, declining to specify exactly what was injured. “For hockey players, that’s a tough place to have an injury. The trainers did a good job getting me on the ice.”
He had a goal and three assists during the series.
“I was out there and prepared to do my job and didn’t get it done,” said Oshie, adding that he will be “fine” and will not have to go under the knife.
As for Ovechkin, the Russian national team said Monday he would not play in the ongoing World Champions “due to injury.” The Caps’ 35-year-old captain played through a leg problem that caused him to miss seven of the team’s last eight games, and also had issues with his back during the playoffs, in which he had two goals and two assists.
“I didn’t take any medicines; I don’t take any shots,” Ovechkin said, dismissing his ailments.
Ovechkin’s 13-year, $124 million contract with the Capitals is up, though the team captain said he was “confident” that he will sign a new deal with the Caps.
Eller suffered a groin injury in Game 2, which caused him to leave that game and missed the next one. He returned in a diminished form for Game 4.
“I wasn’t really able to play at a [high] level, be 100 percent,” said Eller, who had one point in the playoffs. “That’s no secret. ... It was tough to skate through.”
While the Caps’ injuries - and the players who were injured - would certainly explain why they were drastically outplayed by the Bruins at times, the players aren’t leaning on them as an excuse (even if they legitimately could do so).
“It’s disappointing,” Eller said. “We had the team to accomplish a lot more.”
“When it mattered, we weren’t able to play our best,” he concluded.