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There’s Not Always Next Year

Alex Ovechkin leaves the ice after warmups
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The four teams still in the running for the last Eastern Conference playoff spot on Tuesday could split cleanly into two groups: "next year" and "last chance." For the Flyers and the Red Wings, both on the relative upswing, they could look to their core of mid-20s skaters and believe that, whatever happened, a scrap for eighth would not go down as this generation's peak. For the Penguins and Capitals, the two oldest teams in the league, their missed postseasons of 2023 were unfamiliar failures, and with so many goals for each created by the work of guys in their mid-30s, this week felt like a last gasp for air. If 36-year-old Sidney Crosby and 38-year-old Alex Ovechkin couldn't carry denuded rosters, there was little reason to believe they could do so at 37 and 39.

And only one team remains. The Red Wings and Flyers detonated each other's chances near-simultaneously. The Penguins were idle but didn't get the results they needed. And so the Caps, like Paulie in the final season of The Sopranos, inexplicably survived despite seeming the least impressive of them all.

Even the way they clinched was hilariously inapt, coming on an empty-netter with the score 1-1. The Flyers no longer needed to force a regulation victory, because the Wings had just a few moments earlier eliminated them in Detroit's typical dramatic fashion. But Philly hadn't gotten the word yet and went six-on-five, so T.J. Oshie took advantage of the opening where the goalie used to be.

"We'll take it," Ovechkin said afterward. "Thanks, Philly.”

It leaps out at you in bright red on the NHL's own standings page: minus-37. That's the Washington Capitals' goal differential on the year. Only the lowly Canadiens, Blue Jackets, Ducks, Blackhawks, and Sharks have worse, and it's not like this is an early-season trend the team has turned around. In their last 25 games, they've been outscored 69-78. In their last 10, it's 21-27. Though they were weighed down by a six-game losing streak that carried into the first week of April, the Caps found a way to get back up after blowouts and squeak through low-scoring wins with surprise hero Charlie Lindgren filling the net. Just the conference-leading Rangers and Stars have bettered Washington's 20 wins in one-goal games. Nobody but basement-dwellers Chicago and San Jose lost by three-plus goals more often than the Caps did. This evened out to make Washington the lucky median of a conference with 16 teams. In the NHL, that's enough to punch a playoff ticket.

As a reward for their "efforts," the Capitals will face the Rangers, hockey's best team by record. Given that this franchise hasn't won a playoff series since their 2018 Cup, and this is the weakest they've looked since Ovi became able to legally order vodka in D.C., their expectations are sub-basement level. But if the Capitals have anything going for them at all, it's the sheer desperation of mortality, and the crack in the door left open by hockey's randomness. There is no long-term plan in place in Washington, no way to take defeat as a moral victory or a learning experience. There is this series and the darkness behind it. Reinforcements are thin. Everyone's body is breaking down. For guys like Oshie, Ovechkin, and John Carlson, they have to play these games like it's the last truly competitive hockey of their lives. Because there's a good chance it is.

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