season wrap MV

Years from now when people peruse the final standings and the playoff results of the 2023-24 NHL season, the exploits of the ’23-24 Capitals aren’t likely to cause much of a ripple. The Caps finished with a modest total of 91 points, and they were the 16th of 16 teams to clinch a playoff berth, doing so by cementing a 2-1 road victory in Philadelphia in their final game of the season, despite a minus-37 goal differential.

The Caps’ stay in the playoffs wasn’t very long, either. Washington drew the Presidents’ Trophy-winning New York Rangers as its first-round playoff foe, and although the Caps were in each game of the series, they were swept aside in four games. But there is so much more to be said for this Caps team, a team that changed quite a bit over the course of the campaign, a team that faced and fought through a raft of adversity, and a team that’s in the midst of a transition, a gradual changing of the guard from an aging and dwindling core of key players from the 2018 Stanley Cup winning team to a young and hungry group of upstarts who are eager to prove that they’re ready for prime time in the NHL.

“I’m proud of this group because of what we’ve been through since the beginning of the year – ups and downs, injuries,” says Caps’ captain Alex Ovechkin. “We still tried to find a way to be in the playoffs race and tried to find a way to be in that kind of mix until the end of the year.

“It was a fun year. It was a tough year for us, but it was a good year for the guys who played a full season and got that experience, got that type of playoff hockey game. For the future, it’s going to be very good for us and for this organization.”

Several of the players who started the ’23-24 season in Washington weren’t here at season’s end. And several young players looking to make their way in the League when the season opened had established themselves as bona fide NHL players by season’s end.

The 2022-23 season ended in disappointing fashion, with the Caps out of the playoffs for the first time in nine seasons, and with a coaching change at season’s end. But when the AHL Hershey Bears roared their way to a Calder Cup championship last June, the organization had something to celebrate. Four members of that championship Hershey squad played at least 50 games with the Capitals – and all four of Washington’s playoff games – this season. All together, nine members of the ’22-23 Bears suited up for a total of 333 man-games in Washington this season; seven of the nine also skated in the Stanley Cup playoffs series against the Rangers, totaling 23 man-games.

“There were a lot of changes this year and a lot of guys stepping into different spots, whether that’s coming up from Hershey or whether that was moving up the lineup,” says veteran Caps’ defenseman John Carlson. “And I think we showed a lot of fight, a lot of poise, a lot of growth in the players and the team. It wasn’t always easy, but I feel proud that we battled it out until the end.

“I think the [results of the] playoffs make it hard for you to think about that too much, but I think there’s a lot of points in the season that it didn’t look good, and nobody thought it was going to go good, and I think shows the character of the guys to just keep fighting like we did.”

Against daunting odds, the Caps’ bumpy six-month struggle to reach the postseason was a study in perseverance and resilience, and one whose lessons should serve the team well moving forward.

“There was a lot of adversity, a lot of highs, lows,” says Caps’ coach Spencer Carbery. “I feel like we were [up] and then we were [down], and then we would come back up. It was a really, really special group; I can tell you that. And being able to be behind the bench and coach these guys and watch, I’ll always remember these guys for the resiliency and the never-give-in attitude that these guys had. I could reference 10 different games this year where – as a staff going into a game – it was like, this is getting as close to ‘We need to win this game’ or playoffs might not be realistic for our team.”

Given all that’s gone down – good and bad – since the start of the season, it’s worth touching on a few key games, points and stretches of the season before we put the 2023-24 campaign in a box and put it into storage in anticipation of the next one, a few months ahead on the horizon.

With first-year NHL head coach Carbery – the League’s youngest bench boss at 41 – at the helm, the Caps started the season inauspiciously last Oct. 13, getting blanked by the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-0 on home ice, the first opening night whitewash ever suffered by the Capitals. Although the Caps were able to eke out a win in their second game of the season – a 3-2 shootout triumph over the Calgary Flames – they were vastly outplayed in a few of those early contests.

Washington scored just six goals in its first five games of the season, and it did not hold a scoreboard lead until the first period of its sixth game of the season, an Oct. 25 tilt in New Jersey. With Hunter Shepard making his NHL debut in net, the Caps scored three times in the first period, only to give it all back and then some; the Devils scored four times in less than six minutes in the middle period to take a 4-3 lead into the third.

Not to worry, kid. Playing for the second time in as many nights, the Caps rallied for three in the third to make a winner of Shepard in his debut, and to give Carbery the first regulation win of his career.

That late October win in New Jersey was one of the first indications of the Caps’ knack of winning games that didn’t look so good for them on paper. A few weeks later on Long Island, with Shepard in the crease again, the Caps again defied the odds on the second night of back-to-backs against the Islanders. Playing without half of their top six blueline corps, a patchwork lineup combined to block 32 shots in front of Shepard, who made 36 saves in his second NHL start.

Shepard’s own misplay led to the Isles grabbing a 1-0 lead late in the first, but the offensively challenged Caps struck for four unanswered goals in a 4-1 victory.

“It was a character win,” said Carbery in the wake of the win. “Difficult circumstances with the back-to-backs, on the road, and losing a few bodies mid-trip. For us to find a way – it wasn’t pretty at times – and we had to defend quite a bit. But we found a way.”

And because they found a way in some of those early season games when goals were hard to come by, the Caps were able to find their way through a rollercoaster of a season. They shutout the defending Cup champion Golden Knights, rallied to win at home over Buffalo the night before Thanksgiving, and got a magnificent Charlie Lindgren performance in goal to win a 2-1 decision over the Kings in Los Angeles, all in the month of November.

In December, the Caps blanked the Rangers at home and were able to eke out a 2-1 shootout victory behind Darcy Kuemper on the road in Carolina on the second night of back-to-backs. In another indication of their resilience, the Caps won the back half of each of their first six sets of back-to-back games on the season.

By the time the NHL’s holiday break rolled around, the Caps were in a good position in the standings, thanks to a solid 16-6-4 run that started with Shepard’s first NHL win in late October. Over the course of that 26-game stretch, the Caps yielded an average of just 2.46 goals against per game, third best in the NHL over that two-month period.

On the other side of the coin, the Caps scored just 2.62 goals per game over that span, 30th in the League.

Franchise center Nicklas Backstrom played in each of the first eight games of the season before announcing on Nov. 1 that he was “stepping away from the game” because he wasn’t able to perform to his expectations following hip surgery. Center Evgeny Kuznetsov’s offensive production took a nosedive, and captain Alex Ovechkin had just five goals – in 31 games – as the League went on its holiday hiatus in late December; Dylan Strome (11 goals), Tom Wilson and Anthony Mantha (10 each) were carrying the Caps offensively at that stage of the season.

Strome and Carlson ended up being the only two Caps to play in all 82 games in 2023-24, and the two were also Washington’s most consistent players all season. Strome scored a lot of his goals early in the season when the Caps were desperate for them, and he was a prolific playmaker late in the season once some of the other sticks heated up.

Carlson has had better seasons over the course of his 15-year NHL career, but this might have been the season in which he delivered the most value to the team, relative to the rest of the roster. Carlson was an absolute minute-munching monster for the Caps; at the age of 34 he led all NHL skaters with 2,123 minutes on the clock. He also notched his eighth season with 10 or more goals – he’s had exactly nine in three other seasons – and he posted 50 or more points for the sixth time.

Coming out of the holiday break, the Caps became mired in an extended tailspin that put their season in peril. Scoring was a problem. Falling behind early and chasing games was a pattern. Over an 18-game stretch from Dec. 27 to Feb. 8, the Caps won just five times (5-11-2); only lowly San Jose had a worse record over that time frame. Alarmingly, the stingy defense that had served them so well in the season’s first half seemed to have abandoned the Caps. They were dented for four or more goals against in 10 of those 18 games and their average of 3.78 goals against per game was worst in the League over that span.

Following the All-Star break, the Caps learned that Kuznetsov had entered the NHL/NHLPA Players’ assistance program. No one knew it at the time, but he had played his last game in a Caps’ sweater.

When the Caps hobbled into their Boston hotel rooms for the back half of the Mentors’ Trip in the wee hours of Feb. 9, they were lugging a six-game losing streak (0-5-1) and they were in 12th place in the Eastern Conference standings, seven points south of the playoff cutline with 33 games remaining, and with the most rugged stretch of their season’s schedule still ahead of them. After starting the campaign with 34 games in a relatively leisurely 83 nights, the Caps would conclude the campaign with 35 games in 71 nights.

Boston is where it turned around for the Capitals. With their mentors looking on, the Caps banded together for a thoroughly impressive 3-0 blanking of the Bruins in their own barn, and with Lindgren needing to make only 18 saves against a Boston club that entered the game with a 51-9-6 home ice record since the start of the previous season.

“We took away a lot of their time and space tonight,” said Lindgren in the aftermath of that afternoon. “I’m closer to their bench in the second period, and we were frustrating them big time. It felt like shift after shift, I was seeing their guys go to the bench all slamming the door, and just frustrated. We made it hard on them tonight.”

“We came in there on the road; things weren’t great for us then, coming off [a loss in] Florida,” says Carlson. “Against a really good team – I don’t know how to quantify it – I think that was probably one of our best games of the season. When you beat really good teams like we did in that game, you gain a lot of confidence from that, and certainly that can carry some weight."

“That game changed our season,” says Carbery. “The game that we played that day, it just gave us a lot of belief and energy, and the mentors were there. It was just our best game of the year [to that point].”

Weeks ahead of that Boston game, the Caps also made a decision to cast their lot with Lindgren as much as possible the rest of the way. From Jan. 13 to season’s end, no NHL goaltender started more games (34) or played in more games (35) or logged more minutes (2,005) than Lindgren. Lindgren won 18 games during that stretch, which is five more than he had all of last season and three more than he had in his NHL career when Washington signed him to a three-year deal in the summer of 2022.

“You go back to last summer and the way I felt after last season where I finally got my footing in the NHL, full-time,” says Lindgren, in reflecting on his breakout, 25-win season in 2023-24. “This year, I wanted to go in and essentially make a name for myself and just go out and play hard, and to compete and just play as well as I can. It was a year that when you reflect on it, I’m super proud of it.

“I got the chance to play a lot of games, which I’m super appreciative of; I got a great opportunity this year, and I think I did a good job with it. It gives me a lot of confidence going into the summer, and I’ll definitely look to build on that.”

Although the Caps would fall to Vancouver at home in overtime the day after that massive win in Boston, and they would suffer a lopsided loss to Colorado after that, the win over the B’s was the beginning of another prosperous patch of the season for Washington. From Feb. 10-March 26, the Caps put together a 14-6-2 stretch that lifted them into contention for a playoff berth, despite a few ugly losses along the way, and despite dealing away three players – Kuznetsov, Mantha and defenseman Joel Edmundson – ahead of the March 8 trade deadline.

Days after that trade deadline, the Caps embarked upon a five-game trip in which they played those five games in a span of eight nights. After dropping the trip opener in Winnipeg 3-0 and falling 7-2 in Edmonton two nights later, the Caps’ season was again on life support when they arrived in Seattle for a March 14 date with the Kraken.

The Caps simply had to have that game in Seattle, and they got it when Connor McMichael snapped a 1-1 tie with a breakaway goal midway through the third. It was yet another 2-1 win for Washington.

“We just knew how we had to play,” says Caps’ defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk. “We were struggling at times to score goals, and when that’s the case, sometimes you can’t control how many you’re scoring. Sometimes you’re trying your best, and doing everything you can, but the goals aren’t coming. But what you can control is that effort, and that buy-in on the defensive end. And I thought we did a good job of that, finding ways to win low-scoring games and playoff-type games it felt like we were playing for a long time there down the stretch.”

McMichael is one of the 2023 Calder Cup champs who established themselves as full-time NHL players in 2023-24. He finished the season with 18 goals and 33 points in 80 games, but with 11 goals and 17 points from Feb. 10 to season’s end, he was tied for second on the team in goals and was fourth in points over that span.

“It’s disappointing with how it ended, so it’s kind of hard to think about that,” says McMichael of his season. “For me personally, I thought it was a pretty good year. I took a good jump. I feel like I improved my game, I was able to establish myself on the ice, and off the ice with all the guys. For the most part overall, it was a good year for me, and just something I’m going to build on for the future.”

The win in Seattle spurred a three-game winning streak that put the Caps back into a playoff spot in the standings when they flew home from Calgary on March 19. It marked the first time in 77 days Washington had been in a playoff position.

But with less than a month left in the season, more adversity was still ahead for the Caps. Wilson was suspended for six games and Washington also found itself without heart and soul winger T.J. Oshie for the fourth of what would end up being five different multi-game absences from the lineup.

Playing without Wilson and Oshie, the Caps managed an improbable 7-6 shootout win over Carolina on March 22. Then they got Oshie back in the lineup briefly, and they finished off their last extended homestand of the season with a 3-0 whitewash of Winnipeg and a critical 4-3 overtime victory over Detroit.

With just 11 games remaining, the Caps seemed to be in good shape, but it was a bit of a mirage. Beginning with a lopsided loss to the Maple Leafs in Toronto on March 28, the Caps hit the rumble strips, dropping six straight games (0-4-2), and losing Oshie again – as well as defenseman Rasmus Sandin – to injury during that stretch.

At a most inopportune time, the offense dried up again. In its last 15 games – including the four against the Rangers in the playoffs – Washington managed more than two goals only twice, scoring four in a 4-2 win over Tampa Bay and netting three in a 4-3 Game 2 loss in the series against the Rangers.

The April portion of Washington’s schedule was particularly punishing. The Caps had to play nine games in 15 nights – with two sets of back-to-backs – and they had to travel for eight of those nine contests. The final four games of their aforementioned six-game losing streak were those first four games of April (0-2-2).

When they arrived in Detroit for an April 9 date with the Red Wings, the Caps were faced with a harsh reality. They knew they had to win in Motown, because Detroit was one of a handful of teams pursuing the final two playoff berths in the Eastern Conference. But they also knew they might have to run the table and win all five remaining games on their schedule at that point.

Crucially, Oshie was able to will himself back into the lineup that night in Detroit. And in the waning seconds of the second period, he made an excellent play to set up Ovechkin for what would prove to be the game-winning goal in a 2-1 victory over the Wings. The goal was Ovechkin’s 30th of the season; he shook off his slow start to score 23 goals in his last 36 games. But the night belonged to Lindgren and his 42 saves. Patrick Kane spoiled his shutout bid with less than two seconds remaining in the game, but for Lindgren, it was about the two points.

“Credit to our guys,” said Lindgren after that win in the Motor City. “We’re a team that’s going to fight to the end, and we had to find a way to get two points tonight. I think it was mandatory, and it was a fun win tonight.”

The win in Detroit stopped the slide, but the Caps lost in Buffalo two nights later. Down to their last three games, they needed to win out, and to get some help, which the Bruins provided with a win over Pittsburgh on the final Saturday of the regular season, restoring control of their playoff fate to the Caps’ hands.

This time, they wouldn’t let it slip away.

The April 13 win over Tampa Bay came with a cost; the Caps lost Nick Jensen to a frightening upper body injury after a Mikey Eyssimont hit near the benches left the blueliner briefly unconscious. Jensen was stretchered off the ice, but he was fortunately able to walk out of the building with his family later that night. He would not return until Game 4 of the series against the Rangers.

When Lindgren and the Caps beat Boston again on April 15, all that remained was one last road game – the second of back-to-backs – on April 16 in Philly. Ovechkin netted his 31st of the season in the first period to lift the Caps into the lead, but the Flyers knotted the score and the low-event contest stayed even until late in the third.

Fortunately for the Caps, Philly could only keep its own faint playoff hopes alive with a regulation win over Washington and a Detroit loss in regulation. With the Wings trailing late in a game against Montreal, Flyers’ coach John Tortorella made the unusual – but understandable – decision to pull his goaltender with just over three minutes remaining in a tie game. Oshie quickly found that empty net to give the Caps a crazy 2-1 win, and a berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

It was the 11th of the Caps’ total of 40 wins on the season that were secured with two or fewer goals scored, tied for the second most in any single season of Washington’s half century history in the NHL.

“From where we started to where we finished, you couldn’t anticipate any of that,” says Caps’ president and GM Brian MacLellan. “And then you’re in the playoffs, and you’re playing New York in New York. It was a pretty wild run. It was a lot of fun to see the compete down the stretch; that was the best part of the season for me, seeing the effort that everybody put in to get into the playoffs. That was huge for our organization.”

“Pretty, pretty surreal,” said Carbery after the win in Philadelphia. “I don’t think I actually conceptualized this moment of us reaching our goal to get back into the Stanley Cup playoffs. And then when it happens, you’re a little bit taken aback.

“I’m just proud, really, really proud of the group. Today was once again emblematic of what this group has done all year long. On a back-to-back, you could tell we were completely out of gas, and we were just fighting for every shift, just to take strides, just to make sure pucks got out.”

They were still low on gas – and defensemen – when the playoffs got underway. Although the Caps kept every game close, they were swarmed by New York’s special teams, which scored multiple goals in each of the last three contests of the series.

Washington was also severely undermanned; when it took the ice for Game 3, the collective payroll of the 20 players dressed for the game came in a hair under $60 million, or less than three quarters of the salary cap ceiling.

“It’s disappointing that we went out in four; I don’t think anybody likes being swept,” says MacLellan. “But I still liked a lot of the things that we did within that series. Obviously, there is some room for improvement. I liked what our young guys did; a lot of guys took it to the next level in my mind, so it’s exciting to see them progress and to play at a high level in a high-pressure situation against a good team.”

The Caps played the first three games without Jensen and Sandin, and by the time they returned, Washington had lost van Riemsdyk to an upper body injury suffered in Game 3.

“There’s a lot of positives to take from the year,” says van Riemsdyk. “Making the playoffs is a feat; obviously we’re disappointed with how it went and how quickly we’re done here. We’d obviously rather still be playing, but I think a lot of the young guys took some big steps – [Hendrix Lapierre], McMikes. And Al [Alexeyev] played awesome at the end of the year and in the playoffs, so a lot of promising stuff. I think everyone is going to come back hungry. We got back in the playoffs, but knowing that’s not good enough, and we want a lot more.”

Eight different Caps made their Stanley Cup playoff debuts this spring, something that would not have happened if Washington had collected one less point at any juncture of the regular season. Most of those eight players had a hand in the AHL Hershey Bears winning the Calder Cup championship less than a year ago, and young homegrown players like Lapierre, McMichael, Beck Malenstyn, and Aliaksei Protas all followed up that championship experience by playing in all four playoff games with Washington this spring.

“There’s a lot to take from it,” says Malenstyn of his first full NHL season. “It’s obviously exciting to have the opportunity to be here the entire season, get to experience the ups and downs and the grind that it takes to finish a full 82 games here, and I got to learn a lot about my game and where I match up amongst the League, getting the opportunity to play a lot of nights against some of the other team’s best players and things like that. It leaves me with a really clear mindset of what I need to work on over the summer to come back here and be successful.”

Alexeyev was not a member of the Hershey championship team from last season, but he made tremendous strides after Edmundson was dealt to Toronto on March 7. With Washington’s blueline banged up late in the season, Alexeyev logged more than 20 minutes in each of the Caps’ last three regular season games – all victories – and he skated more than 20 minutes in two of Washington’s four playoff games as well.

“Actually, there are not many ways to describe this,” says Alexeyev. “I’m just really happy to be able to play these games, to be able to get a shot to prove that I can play in the top League and play top minutes against top players. It’s unbelievable.”

“It’s actually an unbelievable experience,” echoes Protas. “There is a ton of intensity out there. So many guys, like the veteran players, told us what to expect. But for sure, you will never know until you go through that. Sure, we could have done a better job, but that’s a great learning experience.”

After the Caps were eliminated on Sunday, Washington returned Lapierre to Hershey along with defensemen Vincent Iorio, Lucas Johansen and Dylan McIlrath and forward Ivan Miroshnichenko. All got at least a taste of playoff action this spring, and all are now aiming to help the Bears defend their crown in the 2024 Calder Cup playoffs.

Lapierre scored the Caps’ last playoff goal in Game 4, a dazzling individual effort that tied the game at 2-2. In the wake of the Caps’ playoff exit, Lapierre opined on his own playoff experience.

“It was extremely valuable,” says Lapierre. “It obviously doesn't end how we want it, but I think for me and the young guys playing four games at this level and seeing what it's all about, playing in an away building and at home, and managing different situations, I feel like it helps you a lot, and it's for sure a great experience.

“I enjoyed all the four games. It was intense. It was just how we dream of playing when we're kids, and unfortunately, just as I said, it doesn’t end like we wanted, but it was a beneficial experience for me.”

Despite losing Backstrom and Kuznetsov – the top two pivots from their 2018 Stanley Cup run and two of the best to ever wear the sweater – and despite being “sellers” at the deadline and playing for their postseason lives for essentially the season’s final two months, the Caps pulled it off, they got back into the playoffs.

Nine seasons ago, in the first seasons of his own pro career, Caps’ center Nic Dowd played for the Calder Cup champion Manchester Monarchs. He has a good grasp of the value of a championship run early in one’s pro career.

“We had a lot of young guys step in and they were forced to fill bigger roles than probably what they were intended to fill this year,” says Dowd. “And they did really, really well, under a lot of pressure. And we made it into the playoffs in the last game of the year.

“And I think for the young guys that stepped in and played those roles, it’s great. It’s good for these guys to be thrown in the fire right away, as opposed to lingering in the background and trying to figure out who they are and what they are as a player, and at times I think you saw young guys play really, really well in hard situations. And now, as they get older, they’ll just be looking for that consistency. It’s a great start.”

Merely making the playoffs is well short of the Caps’ ultimate goal to be sure, but it’s a strong start for a transitional season behind a young first-year coach, and it’s a solid rebound from the disappointing campaign that preceded it.

Speaking of which, Carbery might be young, but he and his staff formed a unique synergy and chemistry with each other and with the players – and especially the leadership group – another factor in Washington’s success.

“From the very start, the way he came in and brought that passion, and energy, and accountability, and the drive to push this thing in the right direction,” says Wilson. “There were a lot of unknowns coming into this season. There were a lot of ups and downs right from the very start; guys that were supposed to be here aren’t anymore.

“The whole season, there was a lot of adversity. And he’s the head coach; he kept us pushing in the right direction, kept us on track and ultimately winning some big games down to the end of the year, and getting into the playoffs. I’m sure he got a lot of experience out of this year; there were definitely some ups and downs, but he did a great job. I think as players, you’re never satisfied with making the playoffs. But it was cool to battle for each other and get this group into the playoffs.”

Way back in training camp, Carbery assembled the Caps’ leadership group for a conversation. Two days after the Caps’ season ended with a Game 4 loss to the Rangers, Carbery revealed the details of that meeting.

“I’ve never mentioned this,” Carbery begins, “but at the beginning of the year when I met with those guys, because of where we’re at as an organization and as a team, I said this to them: ‘You guys have done some incredible things in your careers. John Carlson, World Junior champion. You’re all Stanley Cup champions. Rocket Richard [Trophy] winners, and all of the things that these guys have accomplished in their careers – Presidents’ Trophy, just go down the list, individual and team.

“And I genuinely believe this, to get this team back into the playoffs is – for you guys – going to be the most difficult thing you do in your career. Because you’re going to have to now – as players, as veteran players that are not in the prime of your career anymore – you’re going to have to not only carry the load on the ice, but you’re going to have to lead this group of young men.’

“And from a standpoint of me being proud of that leadership group and those guys, because they can’t just go out on the ice and go, ‘Okay, just jump on my back, I’ll just go end to end and score.’ They can’t do that anymore. But what they did is they put everything they had on the ice, and then led, and then [dragged] young players into the fight. And to get this team back into the playoffs, given our roster and given where we’re at as an organization, I felt like is a feather in their caps and in their careers. It will be very low on their list when you look at their Hall of Fame careers, but to me, one of the most impressive things that they’ve done.”

In a perfect world, the Caps’ leadership group will exceed that achievement at some point between now and the ends of their respective careers. But for now, it’s a goal they were able to achieve this season, and it can provide the confidence to achieve future goals that carry a bit more heft, like say, 35 pounds or thereabouts.

“I’m proud of where our group got to by the end of the year, just the culture and the guys in the room,” says Wilson. “I think there was an accountability and just an inner drive to look at the guy next to you, and just a genuine feeling that you could depend on him, and that you wanted to play and battle for him. We might have been outgunned a little bit towards the end of the year, but we found a way to come together and win big games and beat really good teams. And that just shows the quality of the people in the room, and guys growing up, guys maturing, changing roles, gaining more experience; all of that is really important.

“It’s a year that I’ll always look back at as one of probably the craziest of my career. But it was fun to get into the playoffs, fun to play big games, and I’m hoping we can keep moving forward here and do better, and better, and better.”