ovechkin-shakes-halaks-hand

Trust us, the Russian Machine feels your pain. (Photo by Harry E. Walker/MCT)

Trust us, the Russian Machine feels your pain. (Photo by Harry E. Walker/MCT. Top by Nick Wass)

I was completely convinced that this year was going to be the year for the Washington Capitals. I thought they had the right mix of youthful, talented players and solid veteran leadership, I thought they had a defense just good enough to get them by and I thought that with unquestionably, two of the top ten best players in the world in Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, this offense could make magic happen in the postseason and persevere through any hardship. Plus, if the Capitals were still following the same trajectory that Pittsburgh had followed since the lockout in 2004-05, it was actually predetermined, this year was going to be our year.

But sadly, our dreams of drinking champagne and other adult beverages from Lord Stanley’s Cup did not materialize. And now we’re left with another summer full of what-if’s and a bunch of regular season memories that seem to elicit more bewilderment than joy, more anger than hope.

I’ve tried to wrap my head around this season for a few days now, and I’ve come to a few solid conclusions. Why did the Washington Capitals lose to the eight-seeded team in the first round of the playoffs, a team in which they finished 33 points ahead of in the standings, after looking nearly unbeatable for three quarters of the season? Let’s just say, sometimes in the end, it’s not how talented you are, but how much you evolve your game to your competition that truly matters.

I. Two Teams Going In Different Directions.

Winning only three of their final 11 games, Montreal plummeted from sixth to eighth place and needed at least a point in its final game to clinch a playoff berth. But the Habs found their game at the right time, while the Capitals could never consistently play theirs. Why?

I feel really weird typing this, but the Capitals might have been too good for their own good. Following the 5-4 Snovechkin Victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins Feburary 7th, the team had won a club record 14 straight games and found themselves comfortably atop the Eastern Conference ladder. And then the Olympics happened.

When the team reunited from its 2-week hiatus on March 1st, the same mojo that was prevalent during the 14-game winning streak only appeared scantly for the rest of the season. The foot had been let somewhat off the gas, and it was understandable. We endured a few listless performances, we watched the players find motivation in personal goals (because there was no more to be had team-wise) and the team coasted into the playoffs for the second straight year.

Seemingly avoiding adversity as a team the entire year, the Capitals entered the playoffs brimming with confidence. They were the unquestioned best team in the league.

II. Confidence Be Damned.

With the series in their favour at 3-1, the Capitals had an opportunity in front of their home crowd to put the Montreal Canadiens away and advance to the second round to play the Flyers, which was basically an open invitation to the Eastern Conference Finals and a rematch with the Pittsburgh Penguins. You know, the same Penguins team that we swept in four games during the regular season and knocked us out of the playoffs last year. Revenge could finally be ours! Crosby sucks! Screw your gold medal, Sid. We’re going to have the thing that really matters!

But instead of putting the Habs away, the Capitals came out flat for the first 10 minutes of Game 5, overlooked its opponent (like I just did up there) and at points played somewhat arrogantly. They took a 2-0 deficit into the locker room, and when they came out for the second period, they found a Montreal Canadiens team that had narrowed its focus, found its niche defensively and would do whatever it’d take to slay the evil goliath.

Jaroslav Halak stopped 37 of 38 shots that night and 131 of 134 shots overall in the final three games, and for the first time since the current playoff format was adopted in 1994, an eighth-seeded team rallied from a 3-1 series deficit against a No. 1 seed. Why? Because the Habs found a game plan that worked.

CBC’S Elliotte Friedman explains:

There is a little bit of hockey snobbery when it comes to picking apart the Capitals, with critics crowing that they were right in saying, “You can’t win this way.” That’s not completely true. The NHL doesn’t keep zone possession stats anymore, but Washington dominated. When you include blocked and missed shots, the Capitals took 576 for the series, to Montreal’s 381. (Per game average: 82-54.) Canadiens goalie Jaroslav Halak was unbelievable.

However, what this series showed was, despite the Caps’ firepower, you can game-plan for their attack. For example, Washington loves stretch passes. The Canadiens sat back, making it very difficult for them to get through. And, even if they did, players receiving these passes were surrounded.

III. Some Players Were Unable To Evolve Their Game

It was during the second period of Game 6 when I threw my hands up in disbelief and shouted at my TV, “What are you doing, Alex??!?!”

My exasperation was primarily directed at Alex Semin, who was trying to shoot the puck through three Canadiens defenders. That wasn’t what pissed me off though. It was when Sasha Minor skated hard to the boards, retrieved his blocked shot and then defiantly tried to fire again through the same three guys. The result? Another blocked shot and Montreal taking possession of the puck.

While never flagging in his confidence, Semin’s frustration was palpable at times, and he seemed oblivious of the changes he needed to make on the ice.  It was a microcosm of the entire series.

While I don’t question the heart of this team, their overall talent or their sheer determination to win, I sometimes worry about their collective psyches and their maturity level. For example, some of these guys are already such great players at such a young age, that at times of adversity, they are apt to change. Thankfully, when this happens, most of the guys on the Capitals roster dig in and play within their means (John Carlson, Jeff Schultz, Eric Fehr, Boyd Gordon & Semyon Varlamov).

But there are a few notable exceptions. Some find a way to combine determination with stubbornness (Alex Semin, Alex Ovechkin). Others lose confidence in their ability and start making uncharacteristic decisions with the puck when they try to do too much (Mike Green, Tomas Fleichmann).

By the end of Game 6, I knew that the Montreal Canadiens had figured out how to contain Alex Ovechkin and the first line. But nothing changed. Again, Elliotte Friedman details how he believes Alex Ovechkin can improve:

On their lone day off between the stunning upset of Washington and the next series with Pittsburgh, the Canadiens’ Josh Gorges and Hal Gill talked about defending Ovechkin.

“Generally, you know what’s coming,” Gorges said. “When he comes in on the off-wing, he’ll try to step to the middle and shoot through you. You can bait him into that.”

“If you do go to the middle, he will try to go to the outside,” Gill added.

Several of the Penguins described him as an “east/west” player as opposed to a “north/south” one. Fact is, for all of his terrific talent, Ovechkin has become easier to defend. He can still blow by you, but a well-prepared team knows exactly what’s coming. Clearly, the Canadiens did.

Boudreau has repeatedly told reporters who ask if Ovechkin shoots too much that “a shot off his stick is better than anything else we can do.” That’s not the case anymore. Opponents know they can lay off Ovechkin’s linemates because he isn’t so interested in using them.

“Look at what happened in the final minutes of Game 7,” another player said. “He tried to go by everybody by himself.”

“Look at their power play,” said an opposing coach. “I’m looking at Ovechkin with the puck and I’m afraid of all the talent around him. There’s [Nicklas] Backstrom. There’s [Alexander] Semin. There’s [Mike] Green. They’ve got three other guys who can kill you. And he’s taking them out of the game.”

I know what you’re thinking: This is piling on. No, it isn’t. It’s constructive criticism. It’s what Ovechkin must do to reach the next level.

Elliotte also dishes on MG52′s lack of confidence:

Green is another guy who I think is overly affected by what others think of him. The high-scoring defenceman was hurt by not being selected to the Canadian Olympic team, and good for that. If he wasn’t upset, then it didn’t matter enough to him.

But, in the playoffs, he looked like a guy caught between what he wanted to be and what he thought others feel he should be. You can’t play like that. It’s the old Pinball Clemons line: “Paralysis by analysis.”

Green made it to the NHL by taking risks and being himself. He has to get back to that or he’s not useful. You can’t please everyone. Worry about the guys who sign your paycheques first.

III. The Defense Doesn’t Have An Anchor

In Game 7, the best defenseman on the ice was Jeff Schultz, and he was easy to pick out. He played physical, he finished his checks, he shot the puck from the point with authority, and moved the puck beautifully out of his own zone. I had never seen Sarge play this fired up, but it gave me great hope for the future that he can be more than a highly effective, mostly-unnoticeable player on the ice. Maybe Mr. Nasty can be more than an ironic nickname, no?

That being said, Mike Green should have been that guy, but wasn’t. While Jeff Schultz is an extremely important role-player on this team, he may not be the best fit with Mike Green on the first defensive pairing.

At 24 years old, Mike Green is at an early crossroads in his career. While he is generally recognized by his peers as one of the best defensemen in the league, he’s also harangued by the haters who think he’s a glorified fourth forward and cannot play defense. The criticism is unjust and has always been undeserved. While I’ve seen nearly every game Green has played in his entire career, I must levy this criticism: This was the first year Green Life has taken a slight step back in terms of his effectiveness on the ice. Green will probably win the Norris Trophy based on his incredible plus minus, high point total and his rededication to defense this year, but he was much more of an elite and important player for the Capitals one season ago.

Last year, Green played with confidence, creativity, and a reckless abandon. This year in an effort to impress Canadian National Team GM Steve Yzerman, Green concentrated more on his defense – since it’s what they were looking for – and got snubbed anyways. It seemed like he lost a part of himself along the way.

Green needs an elite veteran defender beside him, someone is a leader on the ice and in the locker room and someone who can restore Green’s creative freedom on offense. When the Capitals lost out on trading for Chris Pronger a few years ago, the Capitals lost a prime opportunity to add precisely that guy. Sure free-agent defenceman Anton Volchenkov would be a good fit, but he will also be very expensive to land.

Most importantly, everyone must forgive Mike Green for the two noticeable gaffes he had in Game 7. The kid is sensitive and needs to regain his confidence. I’m sure he’ll be replaying game 7 in his mind the entire summer.  I hope it drives him to improve, not just haunt him.

It’s important to remember that the Capitals only gave up 20 goals in the 7-game series. And if you ignore the outlier that was game 2, it was 15 goals in 6 games. This team played good enough defense and had good enough goaltending to win the series, especially in the series’s deciding game. It was the offense that came up short.

IV. The Status Quo Isn’t That Bad

In the last few days I’ve come across some strong opinions regarding my favorite team that seem ridiculous. Some people have questioned Alex Ovechkin’s leadership and wondered if he still should be Captain of the team. Some of our commenters have requested that we dump Mike Green and Alex Semin. I’ve been told by my friends that on Talk Radio, they’ve openly discussed firing Bruce Boudreau for losing 3 out of his 4 playoff series and not making the moves necessary on the ice to win.

Listen: the Washington Capitals are a young, talented, maturing team. Give them a freaking break. They have a head coach that has only three years of NHL experience. Their core players are all under the age of 25. This loss is not the end of the world even though it’s incredibly tough to swallow. The window for this team to win a championship is going to be open for a long time. Let’s tinker with the roster, not throw a hand grenade at it.

The New York Post’s Larry Brooks expounds on this better than I can:

By the summer of 1979, the Islanders had been knocked out of the playoffs by a lower seed for the second consecutive year, Al Arbour was perceived as a coach who couldn’t win the big one, and Bryan Trottier was regarded as a great regular-season player who couldn’t raise his game in the postseason.

But without knee-jerking, GM Bill Torrey went to work, first reaffirming his confidence in Arbour, then remaking his team by adding Dave Langevin, Gord Lane and Ken Morrow to the defense while subtracting Gerry Hart, Pat Price and Dave Lewis; by adding winger Duane Sutter while deleting captain Ed Westfall; and, finally, by pulling off the signal trade for Butch Goring that cost Lewis and peoples’ choice Billy Harris.

Four years later, the Islanders had established themselves as arguably the greatest team in NHL history while Trottier, who had recorded just 27 points (5-22) over his first four years and 42 playoff games, chipped in with 107 points (37-70) in 75 games during the dynasty’s rule.

By the summer of 1996, there were questions about Steve Yzerman’s leadership ability while the Red Wings were regarded as a classic model of underachievement, regular-season wonders who were postseason chokers after humiliating elimination three years running to lower seeds, including a first-round loss to San Jose in 1994, a sweep in the Finals by the Devils in 1995 and the retreat in the ’96 Westerns when confronted by the Avalanche.

But without knee-jerking, GM Ken Holland went to work, reaffirming his faith in head coach Scotty Bowman, then remaking his team by replacing Paul Coffey, Keith Primeau, Dino Ciccarelli and Mike Ramsey with Brendan Shanahan, Larry Murphy, Bob Rouse and Aaron Ward, the deal for Shanahan equally as significant to Detroit as the deal for Goring was on the Island.

Two years later, the Red Wings had won consecutive Cups on their way to three in six years and the four in 11 that have established Detroit as the NHL’s model franchise.

Which is all to suggest there is no need for Capitals GM George McPhee or owner Ted Leonsis to panic in the aftermath of the seven-game upset defeat to Montreal, no need to tear down the foundation of the league’s most entertaining and polarizing team, but it will be necessary to make significant moves to augment and transform the nucleus in order to attain its manifest destiny.

Let’s try to look at the positives:  with more playing time, Eric Fehr looks like he has the potential to score 35-40 goals per season. Nicklas Backstrom went over 100 points for the first time in his career and has finally found confidence in his shot. At only 20, John Carlson was the best defenseman on the team down the stretch. Karl Alzner, much like Jeff Schultz, is a highly effective shutdown defenseman that you’ll only notice on the ice if you look for him.

Upsets happen. Letdowns happen. Let’s hope this aberration strengthens the team’s will.  This is the humble pie that the Caps needed so that they may look at themselves in the mirror and address their flaws. We need to be positive this summer. We will not be sad. This was a good year.

Next year can be even better.

  • WashCapsRock

    People need to quit calling for MG52 & Sasha to be traded, BB to be fired and any other nonsense. The boys will take the summer to reflect on what happened and come back in September stronger and more ready than ever!

    In the meantime, let’s support our little brother the Hershey Bears (go Carlson, Alzner & Perreault!) as they try for their next Calder Cup.

  • spinner33

    i’m sorry to beat up on you, but no amount of ice time you can give to eric fehr is going to make him as good a player as alexander semin. it’s just not going to happen. i’m sorry to say that so bluntly, because i like eric fehr as a secondary player and as a person, because he seems like a real stand-up guy. and sasha can be tempermental, emotional, unpredictable and a pain in the ass at times. but trading sasha to give eric more ice time is not going to make eric suddenly turn into pavel pure.

    players go through slumps, and alex semin has had a slump at the worst possible time. in all likelihood, it’s going to get semin traded in the off-season, which will be a big loss for the caps, not only in the loss of his production when he’s not in slumps, but of how it will impact ovechkin.

    you could give every second of sasha’s ice time to eric, but that is not going to make him a super star performer suddenly. :( sorry, eric.

  • FedFed

    Please, mercy foreign readers. 2750+ words is tooooo much.

  • FedFed

    @spinner33
    I don’t think that Fehr is much worse than Semin.

  • Hittman

    Fehr is faster than Semin, doesn’t have quite as much puck magic as Semin (but then again, who does?) and is tougher physically and in the corners than Semin. Semin gets more takeaways but also has a lot of giveaways. Fehr is a deadly sniper from about 10 feet away, whereas Semin can strike from anywhere. If Semin’s deflection had hit the net instead of the post in game 7, we might be talking about the Flyers right now. I think the team would be nuts to trade Semin unless they receive something significant in return, preferably on the back end. Semin for Shea Weber!

  • Peter

    Lemme chime in here: I don’t think Ian is saying “trade away Semin so we can get more ice time for Fehr.” I don’t think he’s talking about trading anyone.

  • Peter Hassett

    Fehr is better. My girlfriend says that Semin is going to look way old for 26 years. Fehr has fuzzy dirty blond hair and a fuzzy dirty blond beard, therefore, he is better. Trade Semin and build a series of pneumatic tubes to transport Fehr from his house to KCI to VC.

  • Heather

    I think we need to differentiate between Semins because I know I often question which “one” will show up. There’s the gutsy, hard-working Sasha who scores goals, skates to the puck and looks like he cares. Then, there’s Alexander, who is lackluster, gives the puck away, and forgets how to skate (unless it’s in circles). We see way too much of Alexander, IMO. I enjoy watching Sasha play but at what point is the good play just a fluke?

    I love Fehr. He’s a hard-working guy, crashes the net (an area where Semin seems to be scared of) and so what if he can’t handle the puck as well as Sasha? He seems to be much more consistent and I’ll take consistency any day.

    On the trade or fire end – Keep BB (this should be obvious). I think we need a D-man to go to make room for someone bigger and better. I won’t name names on who should go, but I think playoff play kinda spoke for itself.

  • @MoniMaz

    You brought up a really good point. I wonder: if the Olympics hadn’t happened… what would have happened?

  • sonja

    Now I am going to write the comment I nearly choked on earlier.

    Win as a team (regular season); lose as a team (round one) … it took a full team effort for both the spectacular and the debacle. Singling players out now is bordering on the ridiculous.

    That said, why on earth would we want to trade Semin away now just as he is starting to mature? Then we’d have to face him … really? Do we want that? I don’t think so. As flaky and inconsistent as he can be, I’d still much rather have that fire power on our side of the net than on the other. Both Semin and Fehr contribute uniquely to the makeup of the greatness that is the Caps. They are both necessary. As they mature and learn how to play consistently, the team will become greater. Like fine wine or good scotch. Give them a little time.

  • Hittman

    @sonja:

    Semin just played his best season. He will never play more than 65 games in a year, as that seems to be about his ceiling. 40 goals is similar to the 38 he put up two years ago. If he plays for the Caps again next year, then look for a 60-70 game effort with 30-40 goals and a comparable amount of assists. This whole maturing thing is BS. He’s been mature for several years already and if anything he is growing older, more brittle, and disinterested.

  • Gozling

    Even before this last playoff series I was firmly in the trade Semin camp. He has always been lazy and unwilling to go that extra little bit to improve. However beyond all that is the fact that we can not afford to keep him in the salary cap era. Otherwise you end up exactly like Tampa Bay of a couple years ago when they had Vinny, Brad Richards?, and St. Louis signed to big contracts…and they had no money left for anyone else. That was before the salary cap too I believe. Besides if you trade him now you get more for him then at the deadline next year. At some point you have to restock the system or you will have a finite window to win the Cup. Yes there are a lot of guys in the system, but those guys need to step into Semin’s spot and get something that we really don’t have in the system that is ready to go; a gritty defensemen (is it Orlov that I’ve heard has a mean streak?). I think that Fehr could be a second line winger (he’s done quite a bit with the little time that he has been given) with Brooks and I would go so far as to say Perreault could step in at some point to center. Of course all this is moot if they can’t sign Backstrom, which would be unimagineable at this point.

  • http://pucknhockey.com Eric

    The ONLY reason you trade Semin is because of his contract situation in 2011.

    Surround the exceptional talent with role players. Find a 2nd line center. Get Varly through another full off and pre season workout routine with Irbe. Try again next year.

  • wanggo

    I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing but i wouldn’t be surprised if the Caps win the President’s Trophy again next season. They may not get 121 points again but ending the regular season as the best team wouldn’t be far fetched.

  • Caps Fan in VA

    The analysis from Larry Brooks of the NY Post is perfect! Take a look , a good hard look at all those teams and you could even argue Edmonton into the mix. McPhee and Uncle Ted both know what they are doing, and we as fans need to trust our leadership and front office; knowing they will do what is best for the team. But make no mistake about it moves will be made, we may not like them, some might not work and some will but no one in this organization; fans, ownership, front office, and players want to lose…..

    Without defeat you cannot enjoy victory!

  • capsrus

    Nice summary. I’m still disappointed, but confident in the team moving forward. I side with those who say that some changes have to be made, but we need to keep the core intact. If we could address the center or more seniority issue with a Semin trade, I’m all for it. While life is full of woulda, shoulda, couldas, let’s not forget that we were one questionably overturned goal from changing the momentum of game 7, and if Chimera puts one in the net instead of over it at then end, we might be playing Philly right now. In a bizarre way, I’m almost glad it happened the way it did. Over the course of the series, we were outplayed, outhustled and outcoached by Montreal. I think the team is going to learn more from this experience.

  • BobbyG

    “I wonder: if the Olympics hadn’t happened… what would have happened?”
    This is the 64 million dollar question. I believe in my heart of hearts that the Olympics interruption is at least partly responsible for the Caps loss, inasmuch as I also believe it changed Ovie and the way he played. The huge disappointment over Team Russia’s failure, combined with the Campbell hit and resulting suspension, seemed to affect him in subtle but still noticeable ways. I believe he was so concerned about vindicating himself and restoring his reputation, he started to play more cautiously and tentatively. I think the team as a whole then fed off these negative vibes, their confidence wasn’t there to put the Habs away, and the rest is history.

    Also, as disappointed and frustrated as I stil feel, I’m not prepared or knowledgeable enough to name specific names as to who should go or who to keep. The Olympics created an aberration in the force, and the Caps were swept up in this vortex. So I don’t want to make any knee-jerk comments or opinions about the long-term future of specific people with the Caps. Certain people made bonehead mistakes, but I won’t go so far as to call them out for a hatchet job.

  • CapsFan1975

    I’m sure I’m in a minority but I’m a person who’s a fan of both Fehr and Semin (along with a fan of Ovi). I would like to see Fehr get more minutes than he does.

    I do think they both have unique talents that can help the Caps now and in the future. And they have different skill sets that are needed for the team. Fehr is more of a net crasher. Semin is more of a sniper.

    As disappointed as I’ve been, I take heart by the fact that the great Edmunton team of the early 80′s had as difficult of a time reaching the SC finals as our team, with early playoff exits, including a 1st round exit to a lower ranked team.

    The last 2.5 months seem like they’ve been a nightmare for both Ovi and Semin, as in nothing would go right for either of them. The Olympic loss, Ovi’s suspension, Ovi’s late season slump, Semin’s playoff slump, and the 1st round playoff exit.

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