Thursday, 5 May 2011

Capitals Continue Down Same Path

It was like watching a car wreck when tuning into the Washington-Tampa Bay: you can't stop it, you know it's happening, and there will only be anger and disappointment after all is said and done. The fact that Washington flamed out in the second round of the playoffs in yet another season shouldn't surprise anyone if you were watching this series. There were far too many missed assignments, far too many players just along for the ride, and not enough buy in to a defensive system from the superstars. In the end, the Washington Capitals did what they have always done in recent years: they hurt themselves more than they hurt their opponents.

Now, I know some of you are going to say that Tampa Bay deserved to win this series. I can't disagree with you. Their players simply wanted it more. Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier are playing like it's 2004 all over again, Dwayne Roloson is bringing back his Edmonton days, and the rest of the Lightning are following the lead that these guys are taking. In short, the Tampa Bay Lightning not only deserve to be here after winning seven-straight playoff games against Pittsburgh and Washington, but they will be a dangerous foe for either Boston or Philadelphia in the Conference Final.

The fact is, though, that Washington, on paper, should have given Tampa Bay a much more difficult time than a four-game sweep. Pittsburgh, without Crosby and Malkin, got seven games out of the Lightning despite losing the final three games of that series. What is it about Washington that prevents them from being a solid playoff team like some of the other teams in the Eastern Conference? Four straight years of winning the Southeast Division says they have the talent, so why are they continually being bounced in the early rounds of the playoffs?

Detroit has made a point in incorporating key role players such as Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby, and Darren Helm into their success, and these role players have become as important to the success of the Red Wings as Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and Johan Franzen.

When Sidney Crosby was hurt in Game Seven of the 2009 Stanley Cup Final, who scored the two goals to give Pittsburgh the win? It wasn't Malkin or Gonchar or Staal. No, it was Max Talbot, a role player that Pittsburgh has continually found to be useful in a variety of ways.

When Chicago's stars were struggling last season, who stepped up? Dave Bolland, Andrew Ladd, Troy Brouwer, and Tomas Kopecky combined for 36 points in their run to a championship, and all four men scored key goals down the stretch when players like Toews, Kane, and Sharp were being shadowed all over the ice.

Who has stepped up in the last four years for Washington? Besides Alexander Ovechkin, who has stepped up to score a big goal when Washington needed one? Worse yet, which star player has stepped up when Alexander Ovechkin's game has been contained?

No one. And that's the problem. Alexander Semin, Niklas Backstrom, Mike Green, Jason Arnott, Sergei Fedorov, and Viktor Kozlov were all expected to support the scoring that Alexander Ovechkin was doing, and none of them have been able to handle that responsibility yet. Fedorov and Kozlov are now playing in the KHL and Arnott is a free agent, so that leaves the long-term signings of Semin, Backstrom, and Green as the constants. And the only consistent thing about them is that they rely on Ovechkin far too heavily to do the clutch scoring.

Guys like Jason Chimera and Brooks Laich had some important moments in this year's playoff run, but how badly do you think the Capitals missed David Steckel? What happened to Marco Sturm's game? Do you think Tomas Fleischmann would have helped this squad? Is Jason Arnott's career technically over or does he just not have the same heart he once had? Who is the vocal leader of this squad when they are sitting in the dressing room between periods?

We saw from HBO's programming that Bruce Boudreau isn't afraid to speak up when he feels something needs to be said, so I doubt that this is a coaching issue in any way, shape, or form. In fact, if anything, I'd say Boudreau has done a spectacular job in getting his troops to play a more defensive style of game this season than in any of his previous seasons of coaching. It's easy to let the Capitals wheel-and-deal with all the offence they possess, so having them ratchet down that aspect of their game takes some real coaching.

Weak goaltending certainly reared its ugly head for the Capitals, and that says something about Varlamov, Neuvirth, and Holtby. All three of these men have played for Calder Cups in the AHL, so it's not like they don't understand pressure. If anything, the success of the AHL's Hershey Bears should have them better prepared for the rigors of the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs. Neuvirth played well enough to earn the start in the series for the Capitals, but why was Semyon Varlamov not used more often against Tampa Bay?

If you ask me, this Capitals team suffers from the same thing that has plagued them in the last four seasons: a lack of heart. While the Great Eight wears his heart on his sleeve most nights, Backstrom, Semin, Green, Arnott, and Sturm all seemed to flatline when they were needed most. Ovechkin cannot carry this team on his own when the pressure is on.

Far too many times, this team has waited for magic from Ovechkin only to see their playoff hopes disappear. The other 21 men on the roster owe it to Ovechkin and to themselves to pick up the slack when Ovechkin can't perform miracles.

When Messier guaranteed a win in 1994, he inspired 21 other men to match his level of competition. Ovechkin, for as good as he is, is nowhere near the motivator that Messier is, and his guarantees were nothing more than wishful thinking. As it stands now, if the Capitals continue to operate with little heart and little passion, they will continue down the same path of wishful thinking when it comes to the Stanley Cup.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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