Photo: Patrick Smith

Every year, Nicklas Backstrom’s facial hair gets a little less terrible and Alex Ovechkin’s hair gets a little more gray. Both players are still at the top of their game — for now. But by the time next season rolls around, Ovechkin will be 31. Backstrom will turn 29 soon after. Each player is getting near the latter half of their career.

“It absolutely crosses your mind,” Backstrom said when asked about him and Ovechkin running out of time to win a Stanley Cup. “We need to get over the hump we can’t get over.”

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Photo: Drew Hallowell

On Thursday, the Capitals gathered at Kettler Capitals Iceplex to discuss another season that ended prematurely. The players were more visibly emotional than in years past at the annual end-of-season confab with reporters, promising Stanley Cups to the fans and articulating their frustrations with plenty of “failures” and “sucks.”

The news, however, came in the form of injuries revealed publicly for the first time. Karl Alzner’s ailment was at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Referred to by Braden Holtby as the team’s most important player, Alzner missed most of the final game with a torn groin. He played just two shifts early in the second period before being pulled from the game.

“I know that the first four games of the series, I was just out there filling a spot, Alzner said. “I was out there and I was not hurting the team I don’t think, but I also wasn’t helping in winning in the game. That’s when you know you can still do things, but once I’m getting beat up the ice trying to chase a guy and not able to at least stay in battles, that’s when you know it’s time.”

He watched the Capitals penalty kill, a unit he normally plays big minutes on, give up two power play goals in 33 seconds after Brooks Orpik took a double minor for high-sticking. Later, Alzner sat helpless on the bench as the Penguins won it in overtime.

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Photo: Drew Hallowell

Ahead of Game Six in Pittsburgh, Evgeny Kuznetsov had something profound to say, which I’m now going to share with you.

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The Washington Capitals have played eleven games in this year’s postseason and, so far, forward Michael Latta has been a healthy scratch in all of them.

Normally the fourth-line center, since late February Latta has basically been replaced by Mike Richards. Sitting out can be difficult, but for Latta, it’s been more of an honor. Richards was Latta’s favorite hockey player as a child.

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Heading into Game Five, we had heard plenty of “Murray! Murray!” chants from the home crowd in Pittsburgh. Penguins rookie netminder Matt Murray, 21, has stolen the show, stopping 81 of 85 shots in his last two games. He has relegated franchise netminder Marc-Andre Flurey, currently signed to a four-year, $23 million contract, to backup duty. Murray’s numbers are brilliant, with a 6-2 record, 2.00 goals-against average, and a .930 save percentage in the postseason.

But on Saturday night, it was Braden Holtby’s time to reclaim the spotlight. Holtby, a near lock to win the Vezina Trophy for goalie of the year, stopped 30 of 31 Pittsburgh shots in the elimination game. His heroics kept Washington’s season alive. Now the series shifts to Pittsburgh with the Capitals down 3-2. Without Holtby, Washington may have been packing up their sticks at Kettler Capitals Iceplex on Monday.

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Photo: @CapsYapp

Ahead of Game Two, one bold Caps fan brought a fluorescent pink sign to Verizon Center. Written haphazardly in marker and in all-caps, the message read “SHUT UP PIERRE.” The fan held this sign near NBC commentator Pierre McGuire during warm-ups. It was a hit online.

And apparently it has started a revolution.

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Mike Weber chipped the puck away from the crease. It ended up on the stick of a Pittsburgh Penguin.

It’s not the first defensive turnover to lose a game this playoffs. We saw the same from Nate Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov. But in sudden death overtime against a hated foe to whom the Caps have lost 7 out of 8 playoff series, it burns.

Barry Trotz chose to give a sweater to Mike Weber over Nate Schmidt, a demonstrably better player. Whatever you think of Mike Weber’s play, the fact that he was playing in overtime was the true mistake.

The Caps, who won the President’s Trophy as the NHL’s best regular season team, are now one loss away from having just another disappointing season.

Let’s review the decisive play.

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Photos by Chris Gordon.

Ryan Ellis rarely misses a Capitals game. A former college hockey player, the Ashburn native is a diehard fan. But as the Caps closed out the Flyers in Game Six of the first round, Ellis wasn’t watching, or even tracking, the game. Instead, he was making his second career start in the top-tier NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at his home track at Richmond International Raceway.

“That’s the track I grew up watching Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt race at as a little kid and say ‘Oh, it would be cool to sit a little closer next year, not knowing that 15 years later I would driving at it.” Ellis said. “I always wanted to. That’s the only thing you ever think of, but you never really expect to get the chance because you can never expect anything in this sport.”

You would think NASCAR and hockey don’t mix, but they do. NASCAR is a southern sport built on cheap beer, rivalries, and relatively unsophisticated V8s speeding past you at ear-splitting levels. Hockey is a graceful northern game featuring cheap beer, rivalries, and relatively unsophisticated people punching each other in the face. In the stands at Richmond, as Ellis raced in the Toyota Owners 400, there were dozens of people in Capitals gear to be found, including some in full jerseys.

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In the first period of Game Three, Marcus Johansson got elbowed in the head by Kris Letang. The hit, which was not unlike Brook Orpik’s in Game Two, forced a dazed Johansson to retreat to the locker room. Johansson returned for the start of the second period and ended up skating nearly 20 minutes in the game. With suspensions and fines often based on whether or not the player is injured, the league’s Department of Player Safety will undoubtedly soften the blow to Letang because Johansson came back. The Capitals forward said he passed concussion testing but had “a little whiplash.”

“I didn’t see him coming, he came from the blind side,” Johansson said. “I just looked at it, he obviously leaves his feet, and hits me in the head. It’s the kind of play you want out of the league. Doesn’t look good.”

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Photo: Doug Pensinger

The Washington Capitals played their best game of the postseason in Game Three of the Second Round, firing 49 shots at Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray. After allowing three unlucky goals, two off deflections and one off a tip-in in the crease, the Capitals pummeled Pittsburgh with 21 shots on goal in the third period, scoring twice and nearly converting on a myriad of scoring chances in the final minutes. After the Capitals mustered just 10 shots through the first 40 minutes of Game Two, Nicklas Backstrom was angry with how his team played. But speaking after Monday’s loss, which put the Capitals down 2-1 in the series, he was far more confident in his team.

“We had more shots tonight than we had last game, so that’s a good thing,” Backstrom said after Game Three. “It’s a seven game series and I think it’s so important that you take something positive even if you lose. I thought we played right.”

The message was the same throughout the Capitals locker room.

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