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Stanley Cup window may be closing for Capitals

Defending Presidents' Trophy winners still hunting for key to playoff success

by Tom Gulitti @tomgulittinhl / Staff Writer

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Sometimes a team gets tired of waiting for next season.

No one would blame Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals for feeling that way entering this season, which they open against the Pittsburgh Penguins at PPG Paints Arena on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVA Sports 2).

Last season was supposed to be Capitals' season. They won 56 games and the Presidents' Trophy, but lost in six games to the Penguins in the Eastern Conference Second Round and watched Pittsburgh go on to win the Stanley Cup. They'll have to watch the Penguins raise their championship banner on Thursday and wait until the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin in April for the chance to redeem themselves.

"Always every year we're in the same position," Ovechkin said Tuesday. "We talk, 'This is [our] year.' I think it's time to not do talking. It's time to get involved and move forward."

If this sounds like a familiar refrain for the Capitals, that's because it is. They haven't advanced past the second round of the playoffs since they made their lone Stanley Cup Final appearance in 1998. That includes all 11 seasons of the Ovechkin Era.

Ovechkin turned 31 on Sept. 17 and, though he has shown no signs of slowing down (he was the only player in the NHL to score 50 goals again last season), the Capitals' Stanley Cup clock is ticking. General manager Brian MacLellan estimated Tuesday that Ovechkin has "at least three, four, five more years" left in his prime, but knows time is running out for this particular group to win.

Video: Tracking Ovechkin's goals from 2015-16

MacLellan said before last season that this collection of players would have a two-year window to win the Stanley Cup. Then, regardless of what happened, changes will have to be made.

Defenseman Karl Alzner and forwards T.J. Oshie, 29, and Justin Williams, 35, are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents next summer, and forwards Evgeny Kuznetsov, 24, and Andre Burakovsky, 21, will be due significant raises as restricted free agents. That means MacLellan will have to make some roster decisions based on the salary cap.

In addition, the expansion draft to stock the new Las Vegas franchise is coming in June.

So there is an urgency for this group to win before that window closes.

"We're going to have some contract decisions, some UFAs, some RFAs and the group is going to change more than it has this year, I would project," MacLellan said

Despite the playoff disappointment, MacLellan kept most of last season's team together, with a few minor changes aimed at strengthening the bottom-six forwards. Jason Chimera and Mike Richards have been replaced by Lars Eller and Brett Connolly, and rookie Zach Sanford, 21, forced his way onto the roster with a strong training camp.

But essentially, the Capitals are banking on last season's team taking the next step this season.

"We're one of the teams that should be able to compete and bring to the Cup to our community," owner Ted Leonsis said. "Now it's just about execution. That's not a small detail. There's 29 other teams that are equally as gifted and talented. There's other big-market teams. But I do think that collectively we have this good mix of young players and seasoned players and they know this is a great opportunity because this team on paper is better than last year's team."

Leonsis recalled how in their exit interviews after losing to the Penguins last May, the players' general feeling was "Gosh, I don't know if I'll play on a better team than this was." They seem to appreciate getting this second chance to prove they are good enough to win Stanley Cup, but also know this also might be their last chance.

"Any time you have a good team you want to make the most it because you don't get many chances," Williams said. "You'll have to ask [MacLellan] about whatever he has planned, but teams that generally don't win the Cup, there's always alterations, always changes. Even teams that do win the Cup make changes. It's a constant look for the right pieces and the right fit and I think we have it."

Though the Capitals have some lingering questions about their depth on defense, they have the reigning Jack Adams Award winner behind their bench in Barry Trotz, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner in goal in Braden Holtby, and a skilled group of forwards led by Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, Kuznetsov and Burakovsky.

There are probably a handful of teams in the League that can match or exceed the talent the Capitals have on their roster, but, for this this group, it will be about finally winning in the playoffs.

"We wanted to have a team that perennially can be considered a team that can compete for the Cup," Leonsis said. "We had that last year, I think we have that again this year, but I have to continuously remind everybody the regular season matters. We must make the playoffs. Let's not think about anything else. You have to take that first step."

Still, Ovechkin admitted, "Sometimes you can't wait for when the [regular] season is going to be ending and the playoffs are going to start."

When they do start, the Capitals believe they have a team that's good enough to win it all. They also believed that last season.

"If you look back, sometimes you're missing something, but you can't see what you're missing," Ovechkin said. "I don't think we were missing a lot. Obviously, we didn't get it done last year, so we want to continue to improve and hope this year is going to be our year."

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