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.
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.
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.
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.