Asking the Wrong Question?

Posted by Dave Nichols | Friday, May 06, 2011 | , , | 2 comments »

With all due respect to Japers Rink, here's my noon number:  .667.

That's the Washington Capitals winning percentage this season without Mike Green in the lineup this season.  With?  .526.

The Caps went 30-27 when Mike Green dressed for games (including playoffs) and 22-11 when he did not.

That's all.

Starting Over

Posted by Dave Nichols | Friday, May 06, 2011 | , | 4 comments »

It's been a little over 24 hours now since the Tampa Bay Lightning eliminated the Washington Capitals from the Stanley Cup playoffs, finishing the four-game sweep in less-than-dramatic style Wednesday night.  I haven't written anything since the game re-cap because I was still kind of raw from the whole experience and wanted a little time to reflect.

The frustration of seeing things unfold, in the road arena, with the outcome slowly becoming evident was almost too much. Yes, I was in the press box, and I've become good at compartmentalizing things when I sit up there, but I'm still a fan at heart.  I have been since the second game in this franchise's history.

The emotional, hushed tones in the locker room after the game.  Bruce Boudreau defending his players in his post-game remarks. All knowing that the same team that couldn't find the answers against Tampa would not be back next season to try again. It's tough sometimes. I don't do this because I'm looking for a job. I do this because I love the game and love the team and as much as I try to pretend that I'm a journalist, it still sucks to lose.

We didn't make it to "clean out" day today since we were still traveling.  It never occurred to me when I hastily made our arrangements that there wouldn't be a Game Five.  I didn't think that there would be a big rush to get back.  Like most everyone else, I watched my twitter account for the quotes trickling out of Kettler, as details of injury after injury could finally be revealed.  Some I was aware of, others not. 

I was surprised at the amount of folks in my feed that thought the Caps were revealing these injuries in some sort of elaborate excuse-making exercise.  I was glad that there were others that gently explained to those that it's a necessary evil for teams to "hide" injuries during the playoffs, lest the players become targets.

For most fans, they want to see changes next season. Changes in the players, the coaches, maybe even the general manager.  There will of course be new players, there always are.  There's really no chance the Caps can afford to keep all the free agents they have on the roster. 

Jason Arnott, Brooks Laich, Scott Hannan, Karl Alzner,  Semyon Varlamov -- because of their experience or stature those guys are going to cost some real money.  Others, like Matt Bradley, Boyd Gordon and Marco Sturm will be more reasonable. The question General Manager George McPhee has to ask about each of these players is where do they fit in to what he's trying to build, and in some cases, can he find a player to do the same job cheaper?

McPhee said some interesting things at the media availability today, which he usually does when he chooses to speak with the media.  He was already working on next season, even while his team was being eliminated from the playoffs.  “In my own mind, I know, and I could see it during the series and all through the playoffs what I want to do for next season, and it's crazy, even during games, I'm writing down lineups for next year based on the way things are going, the way people are playing and what we have in our organization.”

We'll have plenty of time in the coming weeks to evaluate, discuss and debate the merits of each of these impending free agents and their value to the system, but suffice to say, GMGM is going to have a long off-season.

One change I don't think needs to be made is at coach, and McPhee apparently agrees with me, as he indicated that he "expects" to have Bruce Boudreau behind the bench again next season.  It's true that Boudreau has yet to lead this team to the Cup, but he's an excellent coach, a passionate "hockey guy", and is dedicated to the organization.  Trust me, no one wants to win this thing more than he does.

He saw a problem this season and took steps to solve it, changing his long-held philosophy and transformed a high-flying offensive attack, one that far and away led the league in scoring the previous season, into a team that was fourth in the league in goals against and second on the penalty kill. It was a remarkable coaching feat, whether you agree or not it needed to be done.

This was a roller coaster of a season, with some dramatically emotional moments -- both in triumph and in defeat. We lived through the losing streak, the drama of 24/7, New Year's Eve and the Winter Classic, the elation of eliminating the Rangers, and the soul-crushing sweep to a division foe. We said goodbye to a few old friends, and welcomed new ones with open arms.

The marathon of another year of Washington Capitals hockey is over. Just like the very first one in 1974 and every single season since, still without sipping from the sport's Holy Grail. I've been there for each and every last game and the disappointment never changes. Sometimes you see it coming from farther away and can prepare for it a little better.  Sometimes, like getting swept in a four-game series that every so-called expert picks your team to win, it comes on too quickly and it slaps you in the face and kicks you in the ass.

Our solice is that in a few short months, it all starts over again.  Some of the faces will change. Veterans will be phased out, rookies will be eased in to new roles.  The core of this team gets one year closer to their athletic peak. As disappointing as the finish was with all the expectations we all placed on this team, there is one truth that Caps fans need to remember: There is a tremendous amount of young talent on this team, and throughout the organization.

Hockey is hard.  If it were easy, everyone would win a Cup. Twenty-nine teams lose every year. Be disappointed, but keep the faith. Next season will come sooner than you think.

One final note: Thank you for reading. Thank you for following us on Twitter and Facebook. Thank you for making our words and pictures part of your experience of Washington Capitals hockey. It's endlessly satisfying, gratifying and humbling to know that people are interested in our opinion and craft -- and continue to be after experiencing it the first time.

Thank you to all the regular media that put up with an amateur like me trying to squeeze my recorder into the scrum just like they are. 

Thank you to our independent media brothers and sisters, for your excellence and dedication make us work harder and strive to be better every time we set out to post something.

And thank you to the Capitals organization -- from Ted Leonsis to George McPhee to Bruce Boudreau and all the players to Nate Ewell, Sergey Kocharov and the rest of the media relations staff -- for recognizing and understanding that independent voices are essential to critical thought and discourse, and for treating us like professionals.

"I think we were expecting to have a longer series." -- Sean Bergenheim, Tampa Bay Lightning

Tampa, FL -- As had been the case in the previous three games in this series, the Washington Capitals could not find the answers to some of the Tampa Bay Lightning role players in Game Four last night and paid the ultimate price for it. Third-liner Sean Bergenheim scored a pair of goals, his sixth and seventh of the playoffs, to lead the Lightning to a 5-3 win and eliminate the Caps from the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Ultimately, Tampa was the better team -- top to bottom -- in this series.  The results obviously speak for themselves; but the effort, determination and resolve Tampa showed on the ice spoke volumes as well.

Did the Capitals think Tampa was the better team?

"They beat us four straight so I think they were," coach Bruce Boudreau said in his post-game.  "It wasn't by a big margin, but we're still done in four games, so I'd have to say they were better."

"They played well," veteran center Jason Arnott added.  "I'm not taking anything away from them. It was a battle. A few bounces might have gone our way, but that's playoffs. You can't sit here and complain about it and wonder if the bounces went the other way. They just didn't. They played hard and [Roloson] played extremely well in the net so hat's off to them. They came out to play and you know, we lapsed at certain times in every game and that cost us."

Those lapses, especially when Tampa's best players actually weren't on the ice, were the biggest difference in this series. "This is the first team we've played in a while that has three lines that really come at you," Boudreau said. "Their "so-called" third line -- I think [Steve] Downie had 12 points, [Dominic] Moore and Bergenheim had at least six goals, so that's pretty good for a third line."

Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher talked about Bergenheim's presence in the series.  "This year every top game, every important game, every game that there is some pressure, he was in it. He was one of our better players. Some people freeze under the pressure, some people fly away and some people fight. He fights."

Brooks Laich rationalized the results.  "I thought there were games, or portions of games where we outplayed them but your're not judged by intentions this time of year, you're judged by your results."

Tampa Bay outworked and outplayed the Caps in this series.  The numbers are evident.  They showed all the things that champions talk about: hard work, determination, resolve, doing the little things, playing 60 minute games. The Lightning came out to win these games, and after the Caps played poorly in Game One, they looked very much like they were playing not to lose.

We can talk in the coming days about who was along for the ride in this series and who was giving effort.  We'll debate long into the summer about whether the roster will get tweaked or if it deserves a total overhaul.  And there will probably be some quick discussion -- either way -- about who is going to lead this team going forward.  I'll leave the speculation alone for the evening.

But right now, after being swept by the team that finished behind them in the division, all that need be said is that the Capitals' season ended at the hands of the better team.

Emphasis on the word team.

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.

"We had a lot of enthusiasm and not being scared to lose, but being hungry to win." Lightning coach Guy Boucher

Tampa, FL -- Every Washington Capitals player that faced the media said the same thing in the locker room following Tuesday night's 4-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, putting them in a no games to three hole: "We have to be ready [in Game Four]."  The unasked question?  Why weren't they for Game Three?

The Caps surrendered leads of 2-1 and 3-2, and completely collapsed in the third period -- again -- en route to Tampa taking an almost impossible lead in this best of seven series.  Only three teams in the modern era have ever come back from being down 0-3 to win the series.

You have to give the Lightning credit.  They created a tremendous forecheck, forcing turnover after turnover, leading to a couple easy goals.  But more often than not, it was the Caps shooting themselves in the foot.  They had a goal disallowed because of another botched line change that led to a too-many-men penalty.  They managed just five shots on goal in the third period, a frame that saw Tampa take 15 shots on Michal Neuvirth.  And twice they had defensemen block their own goalie, preventing a save on a shot.

There were several damning post-game quotes, so let's start with the one that came from one of the few men in the room that has been on a Cup winner, Mike Knuble.  Referring to the Lightning, he said, "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." Hmm, sounds like how the "old" Capitals used to be described.

Nick Backstrom, who did not register a shot on goal and was just 39 percent in the dot, was asked why the Caps couldn't match Tampa's intensity. "I don't know. I think we played pretty good until the third period, when we had everything in our own hands and then we just gave it away."

Karl Alzner was asked the same thing.  "It's tough to say. I don't know exactly, I can't put my finger on it. I thought we were playing good but just started to get a little too complacent.  We just took our foot off the gas for a little bit." Why would the Caps let up with a one-goal lead?  "I don't really know. I wish I knew. I just don't know what to say."

Jason Arnott echoed Alzner's thoughts, "We get up for a certain amount of time and I think that our guys think the game is over."

Flabbergasted.  Gave it away. I don't know. 

These were the responses the Capitals players came up with to describe how Tampa Bay dominated them in the third period.  They all talked about not giving up, taking it one game at a time, getting back in this series, winning Game Four and taking it back to the Verizon Center for Game Five.

But unless someone can come up with how to do so before 7:00 pm Wednesday night, the result might not be any different.  The Caps -- to a man -- don't have any answers for it.  What causes this team to simply stop doing the things they've done to secure the lead in the first place?

Maybe the Lightning are just a better team.  Maybe they are just better prepared.  Maybe the Caps lack something intangible in the collection of players and coaches they've assembled.  Maybe they have several players that just aren't committed enough to be in the right place at the right time.  Maybe some of the younger players they have relied on so heavily this season have just hit the wall.

Maybe none of that is true.  But what is true is that the Washington Capitals are now up against an historical challenge in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.  All the expectations this team, this organziation, have placed upon themselves are in danger of going down the drain once again.

Maybe it goes back to the quote at the top from Boucher, the man with the master's in sports psychology.  "Not being scared to lose, but being hungry to win."  Perhaps the burden of all the expectations are just too much to bear for the men assembled.  But it was obvious watching in the third period.  The Caps were playing not to lose, not playing to win.

Instead, they turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“It was a bad change,” Coach Bruce Boudreau, on the fatal line change in overtime.

When Alex Ovechkin scored at 18:52 of the third period to tie the game at two goals apiece and to force overtime, the Verizon Center erupted to the extent it has not since Sergei Fedorov's goal to beat the New York Rangers in the seventh game of the Caps first round series in 2009.

Six minutes and nineteen seconds of hockey time later, you could hear a pin drop.

Vincent Lecavalier took advantage of a mistimed and poorly managed line shift, got behind the defense, and almost effortlessly roofed a beautiful backhanded pass from Teddy Purcell -- for his second goal of the game -- past the outstretched Michal Neuvirth, sending this series back to Tampa with his Lightning leading the series two games to none.

This game goes into the books as a 3-2 overtime loss for the Washington Capitals, and though all the principals said the "right things" in the locker room and at the press conferences after the game, it was a momentum shift of the highest order, placing all of the pressure of this series squarely on the shoulders of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and all of their teammates.

It was not supposed to be this way.  The Lightning, deep offensively, determined defensively, and possessing a goalie that has had the Caps number in games past, entered this series victors of seven excruciating games against the Pittsburgh Penguins.  The Capitals had a week off to rest and rehabilitate, having dispatched the Rangers in five games.

To complicate matters for the Bolts, they lost two of their key players, savvy playoff veteran Simon Gagne and rugged defenseman Pavel Kubina, in Game One of this series to injury.  Tampa was supposed to be tired, now injured, and according to their coach, Guy Boucher, simply outmanned.

Boucher, who holds master's degree in sports psychology, has been pumping the Caps up every time he stands in front of a microphone these days, and poor-mouthing his charges, explaining in his deep, french-tinged accent that his players are tired, hurt, and just not as good as the Caps. 

"Oh yeah, we need rest. Rest is a weapon." Boucher said when asked if Tampa's first series in now taking its toll in this series. "It's been very, very tough for us, I'll be honest. I don't think we could have gone on another period."

I'm sure Caps fans will cry him a river right now.

When asked how his team's penalty kill owned the Capitals, shutting them out on six chances (11 total for the two games) and 11:32 of extra-man time, he stated, with a straight face, "I think the goaltender, and luck, had a lot to do with it today."

The Capitals futility on the power play is obviously under a microscope, as it has been all season.  But their struggles there are the same in general for this team on offense right now: too many people are trying to create, to make a play, instead of playing simple, straightforward hockey.  Dump the puck. Go to the goal. Crash the net.  There's a reason people have played hockey in that manner for 100 years.

"We're trying," Boudreau said with exasperation when asked to pin-point the Capitals struggles on the power play.  “We’re trying different things. We’re trying to make things work. Obviously it’s not. It's not like they're bad penalty killers, they stopped 35 out of 36 in Pittsburgh. We’ve just got to keep going at it.”

Plenty of people are describing Tampa's second goal as "lucky", in that a crossing pass deflected off Mike Green's skate past his unsuspecting goalie.  But that's how goals are scored, by putting the puck in the crease or low slot.  The Capitals know this.  Bruce Boudreau preaches it.  The players practice it.  And when they play that way, they succeed.

Both of Washington's goals came with a player in the crease.  First Brooks Laich did some hard work in front of the net off a shot from Nicklas Backstrom.  And the team captain got an unbelievably good pass from Jason Arnott in the trapezoid with 1:08 left in the game.

Yet on the power play, the Caps are content to skate and carry the puck, instead of using short, quick passes to lure the defense out of a comfort zone.  They shoot, but all too often from the point, where the shot is easier to block or knock down, then cleared to the safe end of the ice.  Too many players are trying to create instead of simply getting the puck to the net.  This is what Boudreau and Ovechkin refer to being "cute" on offense. 

It's anything but.

Coaches, players and fans alike are frustrated, but Ovechkin reasoned in comments after the game. "We don't have the kind of traffic like we did against the Rangers. And we didn't find rebounds. We just have to go to the net and find the puck."

Yet, despite the trouble with the power play, the Capitals fairly controlled five-on-five play, outshooting the Lightning 37 to 23.  But a puck off a skate here, a bad line change there, and the Caps find themselves in a 0-2 hole.

In playoff games, the smallest weaknesses are exploited and taken advantage of.  Receiving six power plays by the 11 minute mark of the second period, as the Caps did last night, was a gift from the hockey gods.  And they simply did not -- could not -- take advantage of those gifts.  And it now makes the rest of their quest that much more difficult.

These Caps have pulled off the feat before, in the aforementioned Rangers series in 2009.  They lost the first two games at home and won four of the next five games, culminating in Fedorov's winner.  They'll now have to pull that trick out of their hat again if they are to advance to the Conference Finals in 2011.