Alex Ovechkin's play in Game 7 leaves you wondering what's next

Should the Capitals trade Ovechkin? (1:07)

Barry Melrose explains why he believes the Washington Capitals should entertain the idea of moving on from Alex Ovechkin after they fell once again to the Pittsburgh Penguins. (1:07)

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- There were long pauses after each question, more than a few deep breaths as Alex Ovechkin searched for the right words to describe how his Washington Capitals fell short again and were again outwilled by the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Ultimately, he never found the words. And, honestly, what could he possibly say after this Game 7 loss Wednesday that knocked the Capitals out in the second round again?

"We're trying," Ovechkin said. "We try to do our best."

For Capitals fans, that might be the scariest thing about this team. This might have been their best. This might be the best roster they can build around Ovechkin, maybe for the rest of his career. This might be as good as it gets.

The chances of landing a top defenseman at the trade deadline of Kevin Shattenkirk's ability is a long shot, and teams don't want to get in the habit of unloading top draft picks on a yearly basis anyway. Capitals GM Brian MacLellan might desperately want to keep T.J. Oshie around, but the economic realities of a cap system might squeeze out Oshie. Justin Williams and Karl Alzner are long shots to return.

This was it. This was the chance. That's perhaps why the players in the dressing room after the game were more shell-shocked than angry or crushed. It was all starting to come together for these Capitals in this series. Then, suddenly, it was over.

"You almost wonder how much disappointment you have to put yourself through before you can find a way to get the job done," Oshie said afterward.

But even more than the roster decisions that face this team moving forward is the realization that Alex Ovechkin might no longer be Alex Ovechkin. This is another in a long history of disappointing finishes for him, but let's say, first and foremost, that he wasn't the reason for many of them. He became the scapegoat when there should have been a long line ahead of him.

But this series, as he shifted down to the third line and then had zero positive impact in Game 7, was different. He didn't have that normal burst. He wasn't a consistent physical force. Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury almost always seemed ready for his shot. It was like this too often in this series. It caught the attention of one NHL coach who was puzzled by Ovechkin's lack of impact.

"He just doesn't have that body language that says, 'I'm taking over,'" the coach said after Game 6. "Normally, he's like an assassin."

Earlier in the series, the coach noticed one loose puck on a power play that found its way toward Ovechkin and was surprised at how Ovechkin didn't attack it.

"Those top offensive guys, they're on it like a wild animal on a carcass," the coach said. "He was almost surprised by it."

It was unlike Ovechkin. Making it worse in Game 7 was a weak play on the boards that led to a goal the other way. On the Penguins' crushing second goal, he lost the battle for the puck on the wall to Penguins defenseman Justin Schultz.

He scored twice in this series but was never a dominant force. It was revealed Thursday that Ovechkin had been taking "pain-numbing injections" for a lower-body injury, according to the Russian Hockey Federation, and would not play in the world championships.

After the game, the two coaches addressed the media, and their comments about their stars were telling. Penguins coach Mike Sullivan wasn't even asked about Sidney Crosby when he volunteered his opinion on what makes Crosby so special.

"This guy has an ability to elevate his game when the stakes are highest," Sullivan said.

Crosby has done it time and time again. Playoff games. Olympic games. World Cup games. Put him on the biggest stage, and he's going to make plays that change the game.

Capitals coach Barry Trotz was asked why Ovechkin can't seem to break through in these same moments. He opted not to say anything that might come out wrong.

"Emotionally right now, I don't want to answer that question," Trotz said. "We win and lose as a team. That's my best answer right now. I don't think I want to answer that question."

This series might have hinted at what the answer might ultimately be in Washington. If the Capitals are going to break through, if they're going to use these emotionally wrenching losses to build into something great, it might end up coming with Ovechkin in a reduced role. Evgeny Kuznetsov is a budding star. Andre Burakovsky might be on the cusp, too, if he's given the opportunity. Braden Holtby made the big saves to keep his team in it. Nicklas Backstrom was a force. There are still so many ingredients on this roster if the balance of power shifts within it.

One way or another, it's going to look different next season in Washington. For so many reasons, it has to.