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.