Playoff Hockey?

Posted by Dave Nichols | Wednesday, May 04, 2011 | , , , | 3 comments »

Who is to blame when a team of great promise does not fulfill those expectations? It's a difficult question to answer. One on hand, you can place the blame on the coaching staff, failing to get the most out of the players. On the other, you have to place responsibility on the players that take the ice of field. Ultimately, you can lay out the most intricate, elaborate game plan know to the human mind, but the players have to perform to succeed.

Thus is the conundrum with the Washington Capitals. Every season under the guidance of coach Bruce Boudreau has ended in heartbreak. It hasn't officially happened yet, but you can see it from here. Only three teams in the sports grand history have come back from being down zero games to three.

And it hasn't been the normal variety of getting outplayed in the playoffs -- some teams are just better than others -- but it's the spectacular fashion of failure in the sport's biggest stage that had magnified and intensified the problem. Blowing a 3-1 lead to Pittsburgh in 2009. First round exit to the eighth seed in 2010. Getting swept thus far by a Southeast Division foe this season. The failure is both spectacular and uncanny.  It's been the biggest consistent in Bruce Boudreau's coaching tenure.

Where do you lay the blame?

I have been, and remain, a Boudreau supporter.  He's the reason the Caps are where they are today. He took a perennially boring, underachieving squad and turned them into the most exciting and interesting team in the NHL. But then, surrendering to criticism, he completely tore down and remodeled his structure and systems. He succumbed to the intense media scrutiny of last year's playoff disaster and a strange extended regular season losing streak, and altered not only the way this team plays, but most definitely changed its personality.

The Caps ran roughshod over the league in March, propelling themselves to the top of the Eastern Conference standings, utilizing the new tenets of defense, goaltending, and opportunistic offense. Boudreau took supremely gifted athletes and gave them a different game plan to follow, and they found success.  But the chinks in the armor were there to witness too, it was just easier to dismiss them when they were winning games.

Even in the first round series win over New York, it was still the Capitals supreme talent that ultimately won out over a lesser-skilled team. But faced with a more-skilled team with superior dedication and discipline, the Capitals are the ones being frustrated.

The mood around Tampa is strange. Lightning fans are shocked they've had this success against what they view as a superior team. But the Capitals talent is being hidden under this new system of defensive responsibility, as it has been all season long.

The players in the room after the game last night could not find answers to the questions they were posed. Maybe they're so close to the problem they can't identify it. Maybe they know but don't dare speak it. But it's evident.

"They're uncanny when they want to get a goal.  They just snap their fingers, hit a button and dial it up. You can see it's like they flipped a switch. I don't know what it is. It leaves you flabbergasted." Mike Knuble uttered those words about the Lightning last night.  They used to say that about the Caps.

The soul of this team has been crushed.  They were once the most exciting team in the league. They had a joyful, energetic, singular talent leading them on the ice and leading the league in offense.  Now, they're stuck in a system that is apparent that very few of them want to play.  They are playing undisciplined, unfocused, and without emotion. It's like asking a thoroughbred to strap on a plow.

They went from a system that was designed to win games to one that is designed to not lose games.  Playoff hockey indeed.


  1. Mia // May 4, 2011 at 1:37 PM  

    I could not agree with you more. If the "system" is played correctly, the Sashas can do amazing things. How can anyone even think that playoff hockey is run-n-gun hockey in today's NHL. A good defensive mentality keeps the goals against down. When a team has offenisve fire-power like the CAPS do, the goals for may not be as high, but winning is not only absolutely possible - it can lead to a beautifully executed game such as that against the Rangers in game 5. Sunday's game against Tampa Bay was great hockey, but the OT mistake cost them that time.

    Having a long-term, well-balanced, flexible system is the ONLY way to get through all the teams in the playoffs to get the the CUP in the post-lockout, 30-team, CBA NHL. The fact that the team was NOT COACHED to work as a complete, team unit and the current "game plan" was not put into place UNTIL THE RUN-N-GUN hockey lead them straight to an 8-game losing streak is entrirely the coaches responsibility.

    I am an expert in mental attitude and psychology. Read my blog and you'll find that I not only KNOW EXACTLY the attitude it takes battle through almost anything, but the U.S. Gov't also paid me to coach people who carry weapons so they can work as a team no matter what.

    Your post is yet another reason I refuse to kepp my trap shut and let pixels go unchallenged in the Washington Capitals Nation any further.

    I BELIEVE in the power of the mind and I disagree with you.

  2. GO // May 4, 2011 at 2:01 PM  

    Good post, and great read on the state of this team as they face another embarrassing elimination.

    I think its interesting however, that you say you support Boudreau, and in the same post highlight that the defensive system he installed -a clear reaction to media criticism - has suppressed the talent and taken the spirit out of this team. Yes, you point out their amazing March, but all that matters is the post season.

    Boudreau is a decent coach, I admit. But not a great coach. A few years back he was the beneficiary of inheriting a team with astounding raw talent, and the most talented player in the world. But he was never able to take them to the next level. The Caps window isnt going to stay open forever. McPhee needs to go in another direction asap.

    ps- I agree with Mia, who says that the way to win in the playoffs is by playing defensive hockey. However, you need to the proper pieces. Boudreau tried to squeeze players that (most of whom) clearly dont have the discipline and mindset to play that style. That is the coach's fault.

  3. Dave // May 4, 2011 at 2:11 PM  

    thank you both for the comments.

    i don't believe defensive hockey is the only way to win the Cup. 3 of the last four teams last season were in the top 8 in the league in scoring. Wayne Grezky and Mario Lemieux won Cups and they didn't play defense to save their lives.