Aging Capitals hope title window hasn’t closed

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ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — Look no further than the extra gray hair on Alex Ovechkin’s head for proof that he and the Washington Capitals are getting old.

The stress of the past few years has not helped. Since winning the Stanley Cup in 2018, the Capitals haven’t won a playoff series and are now one of the oldest teams in the NHL.

The talent has always been there to extend Washington’s playoff streak to six. To make it seven will require overcoming injuries to two of the best players for a team that still thinks it has what it takes to challenge for a title.

“Yeah, we didn’t,” veteran center Lars Eller said. “But do I believe we still have a race within us? Yes. I think we have all the assets. I can say that because I’ve seen us do it before.

The Caps’ championship core remains, and general manager Brian MacLellan wasted no time in the offseason to erase the uncertainty in the net by adding 2022 Stanley Cup-winning goaltender Darcy Kuemper.

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He also added Dylan Strome in free agency and Connor Brown via trade from Ottawa, two players who should fill big roles while center Nicklas Backstrom and top right wing Tom Wilson are out. Wilson is expected to miss at least the first two months of the season recovering from a torn ACL in his left knee, and Backstrom hopes to play at some point after undergoing left hip surgery.

It will take more than Strome and Brown — young center Connor McMichael has a big opportunity — to make up for not having Wilson and Backstrom for a while.

“You can’t just say we’re going to put the next player in and everything will be just as good,” said No 1 defender John Carlson. “But we can all find different ways to contribute and make a difference and be better at different things.”

Ovechkin and center Evgeny Kuznetsov helped carry the Capitals early last season when Backstrom was absent, and they were atop the league standings until Jan. 2. After a 50-goal season, Ovechkin’s ability to score better than any player of his generation means Washington can always keep the momentum going.

MacLellan is also realistic about where the Capitals sit in the hockey arc between wins and fights. They are still in it but need things to go well to win it all again.

“There are teams that have younger star players ahead of us, and then I think we’re with Pittsburgh and teams that are still good that could still be successful,” he said.

Ovechkin is 21 goals shy of equaling Gordie Howe on the NHL’s career list, but he’s the first to shut down any conversation about reaching that milestone.

“Let’s wait,” he said. “I can’t score 21 goals in one game. I can’t, so let’s wait.

What about scoring 50 again? A 10th season of 50 goals would be an NHL record.

“I wouldn’t bet against him,” MacLellan said. “I think he has a strong will, and I think he knows what he wants to do and usually when he’s in that frame of mind he gets what he wants to do.”

Kuemper isn’t just supporting the Colorado Avalanche to a title. He’s also one of the most consistent goaltenders in hockey over the past five years: among players who have played at least 150 games in that span, Kuemper ranks first with a .921 save percentage and second with a 2.43 goals-against average.

“He’s got size, he’s got a track record, he’s also played on different types of teams: championship teams and non-playoff teams,” MacLellan said. “He has a wealth of experience that I think we will all benefit from.”

Kuemper is also the undisputed starter with Charlie Lindgren replacing him. It’s a big change from the young and unproven Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov who share the tasks.

“They performed well at times and they grew at different times in different ways, with ups and downs as is the case with every young player,” Eller said. “They’re both young goalies, but at the same time, I understand why the team did what they did.

Among those entering the final year of their contract are Eller, Brown, wingers Conor Sheary and Garnet Hathaway, defenders Dmitry Orlov, Nick Jensen and Trevor van Riemsdyk and coach Peter Laviolette. Several, notably Laviolette, should be extended.

The Capitals will play the franchise’s fifth outdoor game on Feb. 18 when they visit the Carolina Hurricanes for the final rendition of the NHL’s Stadium Series at NC State’s Carter-Finlay Stadium.

There are eight players left on the roster since the last time they played away: at the Naval Academy in 2018 – three months before Washington won the Cup.

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