By Stu Hackel
With just over three minutes remaining in Game 4 and his team, the Washington Capitals, near elimination in Tampa Bay on Wednesday night, Alexander Semin was shown on a TSN replay barking at the referee for what he thought was a missed call behind the play. Semin then floated poutily toward his bench while the Lightning’s Teddy Purcell was passing to Marty St. Louis for the home team’s fifth goal. It was a snapshot of what still ails the Caps, an NHL glamor team that remains a chronic Stanley Cup playoff underachiever.
This is not to pick on just Semin. As we noted yesterday, there are some serious flaws in this club that go beyond the lethargy of one or two players.
For the fourth season in a row, the Caps have been eliminated by a lower-seeded team, but this is hardly the first time a club has chronically underachieved in the playoffs. (Here’s an SI.com photo gallery of classic examples.) It might be the first time that one has flopped with so many eyes on them. But despite national focus from media, being half of an HBO special, their attractiveness to the advertising industry, and attention from the league itself — all of which creates a hype around the club that convinces its fans that “soon the championship will be ours, all ours!”…
…the real commitment and other necessary ingredients required to win in the postseason weren’t in Washington this season.
It’s one thing to collect talented players on a roster and be a marquee franchise, but it’s another to make them champions, to have the right mix of great talent and great character, a group that combines the perfect blend of youth and experience, recognizes the value of sacrifice and gets molded into the sort of unit that complements its parts and overcomes whatever is thrown at it.
The Caps have taken some good steps in that direction, but they’re clearly not there yet.
It’s the mark of all Stanley Cup champions that they can win any type of game you throw at them. You want to play tight defense? We can out-defend you. You want to mix it up? Our team won’t fold under your pounding and we’ll give it back. You want to try to outscore us? We’ll win those shootouts. You have a great goalie? Ours is better. Make some changes in your breakout or special teams that gives you an advantage? We’ll make adjustments to neutralize it. Some of our important players are injured? Our depth can overcome it. Put us down by a few goals or a game in a series? We’ll come back.
Only one team out of 30 has the right answers to all those questions each year and the Caps are still looking for some of the answers.
For one thing, they are still young at important positions: goaltending for example. Yes, Michael Neuvirth looked sound in the first round against the Rangers, but that was against a team lacking two essential offensive components — an elite center and a top puck-moving defenseman. In the second round, Neuvirth sprung a few too many leaks to hold off the more high-powered Lightning.
The Caps top defense pair — Karl Alzner and John Carlson — each played their first full NHL season. They’re quite good, but they can’t do it alone and could use some capable veteran assistance. The rest of the blueline corps is ineffective against a team with speed like Tampa Bay.
And after improving each year in his first three seasons, Washington’s young top center, Nicklas Backstrom, has joined Semin on the Caps’ enigma list. The wizardry he displayed with the puck that earned him a 10-year, $67 million contract last May went missing too often this season. The list of players whose game dropped off significantly after signing a big deal is long and includes athletes in all sports. Not everyone who gets the big payday allows his game to erode, however, and for every Derek Sanderson, Rogie Vachon, Alexei Yashin, Wade Redden, Bobby Holik and Scott Gomez who were never again what they once were, there is a Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane or Duncan Keith who got big money and went to the next level. In fact, that trio won the Stanley Cup shortly after signing their lucrative new deals. Whatever the strange dynamic that confronts an athlete after signing a mega-contract now challenges Backstrom. His future career arc is hugely important for the Caps, not merely because his performance is so tied to Alex Ovechkin’s, but because of the salary cap space he consumes.
The Caps have an excellent group of youngsters and more coming, but in the playoffs, it helps immensely to have guys who have been there often and gone far. The antidote that GM George McPhee found at the trade deadline didn’t pan out. Initially, the Caps responded well. But after a promising start as Semin’s center and mentor, Jason Arnott seemed to vanish and have little impact in either role. Defenseman Dennis Wideman was injured and never got into a playoff game. Marco Sturm looked just plain ineffective.
The bull’s-eye for this defeat is now squarely on coach Bruce Boudreau’s ample frame and his fate will be the main topic that McPhee will consider as he surveys the damage. On one hand, Boudreau has not been able to get his club to raise its game in the playoffs and adjust to the changes that postseason hockey throws at it, nor has he cajoled better performances out of key players. In some ways, it’s that simple. In a results-oriented business, Boudreau hasn’t gotten the results.
On the other hand, Boudreau has tried to institute adjustments. Making this team much better defensively this season was no easy task. The Caps lost what they had achieved during the regular season and in the first round, and they were frustrated by a superior system employed by Tampa Bay, but there could be something very special going on with the Lightning this spring that might confound any opposing coach. Plus, Boudreau, along with Ovechkin and owner Ted Leonsis, is the face of this franchise, the regular guy who is not so full of himself that he can’t admit mistakes or make changes. If he goes and his players’ coach methods go along with him in favor of a disciplinarian, will these players respond and take the next step or will they recoil and lose what makes them a potentially special group? That’s a big unknown.
So the playoffs will go on without Washington once again, and perhaps the expectations in and around this team will be more measured going forward. Regardless of how talented a team may be, so much has to go right for it to enjoy sustained playoff success. Mere talent alone can’t accomplish it all. Lots of regular season champions had to lose before they learned how to win in the playoffs. The ’80s Islanders and Oilers and the ’90s Red Wings all fell short for years before the capturing the Cup and becoming dynasties. The Senators never did win it all. The Sharks, well, they’re still hoping.
The Caps, too, will have to take a long hard look at who and what they are before the Stanley Cup is theirs, all theirs.