Summer came later this year for the winter residents of Verizon Center…for the first time ever the Wizards and Capitals advanced to the second round of their respective playoffs.  Sadly the confidence of sweeping Toronto and the buzz of a seventh game triumph over the Islanders washed away with each team losing three straight games en route to similar summer vacations.  Plenty of progress made on each front– but exits that while aren’t unexpected (both lost to the conference’s top seed) still keep the teams in a familiar place.  Not even in position to get in position for a possible title.  The Capitals haven’t been to a conference final since 1998–despite more than a few chances with a multiple MVP winner.  The Wizards–let’s go back to 1979 when the Bullets were last in the NBA’s Final Four.  That was the year that Magic and Bird met in the NCAA’s Final Four–a demarcation line dividing pro hoops Jurassic Era from the “Birmagijordan Era” (apologies for an unwieldy mashup) that powered the league’s ascendance over a 20 year span (for those scoring at home…I guess the “modern” era of Duncan/Lebron is in its latter stages, I just need to come up with an equally bad title).  It’s been a while since either team had a chance to play for a title–what needs to be addressed as each reloads for a run?

 

The Wizards saw a 2-1 lead (thanks to Paul Pierce’s last-second basket) evaporate despite the late-game heroics of Paul Pierce:  yes, the truth is he missed a game-tying three at the end of Game 4–but his three put the club ahead briefly in Game 5 and his game-tying 3 was waved off in Game 6. Fans not only have those what-ifs to deal with, but the absence of John Wall for three games with 5 non-displaced fractures in his left wrist and hand will have the faithful thinking they could have swept the Hawks (fans are fun that way).  Their 46 wins were the most since the 1978-79 title season.  Can they build on that or will this be like previous nucleus peaks of 2005 (45 wins and a sweep by Miami in the 2nd round), 1997 (44 victories and a sweep by Chicago in the 1st round) or 1987 (sadly, 42 wins and a sweep by Detroit was as good as it got in the 80’s)?  Wizards’ needs include a producer inside (Nene was negligible in the postseason) and a second unit sparkplug (Otto Porter showed flashes in the postseason, but was always better when playing with the starters).  Kevin Seraphin picked a great time to let everybody know he becomes a free agent– his 13 points and 8 rebounds was the one frontcourt bright spot in the Game 6 loss (although Nene notched 11 rebounds, the Brazilian Big Man, Paul Pierce and food-poisoned Marcin Gortat shot 4-18).  Other players hitting the free agent market are Drew Gooden (who’s been a nice veteran presence on this club), Rasual Butler (who played in just 2 playoff games) and Will Bynum (who notched 19 points in 27 minutes against the Hawks in the playoffs).  Paul Pierce and Garrett Temple have player options;  while the 37-year old Pierce suffers from excessive mileage and might just decide to call it a career…you’d hope they’d find a way to bring #34 back.  Temple was hurt late in the season–and his money might be better spent elsewhere.  On the bright side, Andray Blatche’s amnestied contract finally clears the books this summer.

 

The Capitals didn’t necessary collapse in their Eastern Conference Semifinal Series with the Rangers–but it’s tough to ignore a blown late lead in Game 5 followed by sluggish start in Game 6.  The Game 6 implosion–although they rallied to make it a one-goal game–is what concerns me.  It was at home.  There was a chance to advance and they coughed up early and late first period goals.  Say what you will about the overtime losses in Games 5 and 7–but the one that still stings is the Mother’s Day defeat.  Year one under Barry Trotz saw a return to the playoffs…and another 50-goal season for Alex Ovechkin and another 60-assist season for Nicklas Backstrom.  Not to mention iron-man goaltender Braden Holtby (Glenn Hall, watch your back).  As always, it feels like the Caps are closer than the Wiz but there are still a few roadblocks on the highway to the Cup Finals.  Can they find a front-line scorer to compliment Ovechkin and Backstrom?  Only Spinal Tap drummers had similar shelf lives this winter on that line.  Will they get a solid second-line center to maximize the likes of Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky?  Do they even try to re-sign Mike Green?  It’s been six years since the defenseman’s offensive numbers peaked with 31 goals and 42 assists.  How do they address in-season acquisitions with expiring contracts like Curtis Glencross  and Tim Gleason?  Other unrestricted free agents include Eric Fehr, Jay Beagle and Joel Ward.  We’ll learn this summer if they were simply holdovers from the previous regime or guys Trotz wants in his dressing room.  Kuznetsov, Marcus Johannson and Braden Holtby are restricted free agents this summer.  Keeping #70 in DC is priority #1.

 

 

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