Something struck me as I read the various blogs and newspaper articles asking why the Washington Capitals will be booking tee times rather than preparing to play the Flyers. You're probably going to tell me that you've heard it all before when I tell you the revelation that struck me, but the proof was no more evident than in Game Seven of the Washington-Montreal series. If there is any reason why the Capitals aren't playing right now, this revelation, to me, is the entire reason why. And I'm going to sound like a broken record, but the truth was shown as Montreal advanced and Washington went home empty-handed. Again.
There is nothing I appreciate more than seeing a team grab their lunch pails, throw on their hard hats and work gloves, and rub in a healthy dose of elbow grease when they take the ice. The Montreal Canadiens put forth an effort that would have built Rome in a day, while the Capitals seemingly were content with not stepping on the gas pedal when they had their chances.
Everyone wants to point to Jaroslav Halak as being "the difference", but we've known Halak was a very good goaltender for some time now. The key is that you have to be paying attention, and the two players that I assumed would have known how good Halak was would have been Alexander Ovechkin and Alexander Semin.
You see, those two gentlemen had the pleasure of dealing with Halak in February when a major accolade was on the line. Halak was the starting goaltender for Slovakia at the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games, and he led the Slovaks to a 2-1 shootout victory in Vancouver over the highly-touted Russian squad.
Said Puck Daddy's Greg Wyshynski: "Unable to convert on the power play; unable to solve goalie Jaroslav Halak, whose only goal allowed was on a deflected puck; and unable to put away a Slovakian team that played in an intense and exhausting loss to Czech Republic less than 24 hours earlier."
Russia was outworked by a team that was dedicated to defence, and the Great Eight was shutdown in regulation time and overtime. His only highlight? Going one-for-three in the shootout. On the other side, Halak finished with 36 saves, and recorded six more in the shootout before the Slovaks prevailed. Halak was outstanding all night long, and helped his team to the best finish in his country's history as they finished fourth - ahead of the Russians who finished a disappointing sixth.
Perhaps Nicklas Backstrom should have known that Halak could shut the door as well. After all, he had three shots on net, and finished the Olympic quarter-final game with just one assist in a 4-3 Sweden loss to Slovakia. Backstrom, however, came to play in the opening round of the NHL Playoffs, but his scoring dried up when it mattered as well. Sweden finished fifth at the Winter Olympics, right behind fourth-place Slovakia.
All three men had a chance to exact a little revenge on the man who ousted their medal chances at the Winter Olympics, and appeared to have exorcised the demons as Washington built a 3-1 lead in the series. But a funny thing happened before Game Five.
The Montreal Canadiens, still believing that they could keep this series going, held a team meeting without practicing. Head coach Jacques Martin juggled his lines a little bit. And he opted to put Halak back in net after having Carey Price in his nets for Game Four.
The team refocused its efforts on shutting down the high-flying Capitals, and returned to playing five men in the defensive zone rather than looking for a quick break-out with a man releasing. The team bought into blocking every shot it could, and allowing Halak to see any long shot from the outside by clearing bodies in front and keeping the Capitals' snipers on the outside.
Basically, the Montreal Canadiens bought into the theory that this series would be won on hard work - bearing down on defence, working a solid cycle game to wear down the Capitals' defencemen, and keeping rebounds to a minimum. In a word, they were willing to sacrifice everything to win something. That is "desperate" hockey in a sense, but I prefer to call it NHL Playoff hockey.
The Capitals? They had three opportunities to put the Canadiens away, and couldn't find the extra gear they needed. They tried to wheel-and-deal like they had all season long, and it caught up to them when a defensive unit put the roadblocks out.
The Russians and Swedes? They had their opportunities to put the Slovaks away, and couldn't find the extra gear they needed. They tried to wheel-and-deal like they had all tournament long, and it caught up to them when a defensive unit put the roadblocks out.
In case no one has noticed, defence wins championships. The Pittsburgh Penguins found that out in 2008 when the Detroit Red Wings showed them that hard work and effort will trump talent every time. The Penguins came back in 2009 - a little grittier, a little meaner, and a whole lot more hard-working - and steamrolled the Ottawa Senators before ousting the Capitals in a lackluster Game Seven for the team from DC.
Talent goes a long way in the regular season. There's no denying that. Playoff hockey, however, is all about effort and sacrifice. Combine that with talent, and you have a lethal combination of scoring and willingness to win.
The Capitals have more talent on paper than most teams do. But they simply don't bring the work ethic necessary to win a Stanley Cup at this point. If I were head coach Bruce Boudreau and General Manager George McPhee, I'd come into next season preaching the benefits of bringing your lunch pail to work every night.
In the end, it might just pay off for Ted's crew of highly-skilled hockey players. Otherwise, Ted might just have himself a formidable crew of scratch golfers by the time the organization gets itself in order.
Point at Halak and tell me he was good. I'll agree with you. But I'll also add that the twenty men in front of him gave him everything they had in preventing Washington from doing any damage. Montreal's hard work trumped the abundance of Washington talent in the series, and it just goes to show how true that statement is.
Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!