Thursday, April 29, 2010

It's Over

It is an old cliché in sports – in life, actually – that you never know if the opportunity presented to you now – today – is the only chance you will get to catch the dream you chase.

Tonight, the Capitals' chance for a Stanley Cup passed them by in the form of the Montreal Canadiens, who brought their lunch pails and their hard hats to Verizon Center, while the Caps seemed content with dressing up like a collection of swells. The result was a 2-1 loss that eliminated the Capitals from this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs and set off what promises to be a summer of serious reflection on the matter of whether this team – as currently configured – has the guts, the grit, and the heart of a champion.

Based on tonight’s play, and based on the body of work the Caps turned in for this series, they clearly do not.

As it was too many times this season, the Caps played fine hockey in spurts, but could not cobble together a solid 60 minute effort. And the bitter pill to swallow is that the defense (with two achingly obvious exceptions) was not the problem. Nor was the goaltending by Semyon Varlamov. Holding a team to two goals and 16 shots (eight in the last two periods, combined) should be enough for the most offensively challenged team to win a hockey game. But the Caps – they of the top goals-scored average and power play conversion rate this season – played role of offensively-challenged team in a manner worthy of Oscar consideration. Unfortunately, the Oscar is not among the trophies awarded by the National Hockey League.

In this one, the Caps had four shots on goal in the first 2:45, but it only seemed to serve the purpose of allowing goalie Jaroslav Halak a sufficient warm-up to sustain him for the rest of the game. The Caps would then go more than 13 minutes before they recorded their fifth shot on goal. Rather than put the Canadiens away early, they put their fans in Verizon Center to sleep.

That would have been bad enough, but then defenseman Mike Green took a ghastly penalty in the offensive zone by cross-checking Andrei Markov with an official standing 15 feet away and the puck off in the corner. Twelve seconds after Green took a seat, Marc-Andre Bergeron – the subject of perhaps coach Jacques Martin’s most subtle and effective adjustment for Montreal (moving him from defense, where he was a liability, to the fourth line, where his power play shot could still be available if needed) – unloaded a bomb from the top of the right wing circle off a cross-ice feed from Scott Gomez that caught Varlamov pushing too hard to get across his crease, leaving an opening on the far side past his blocker.

From then on, Montreal gave every indication that they wouldn’t even so much as look at the Washington goal as much as they would just dump the puck out of the zone and dare the Caps to cross the blue line or navigate through the center of the ice with Canadiens at every turn. It became a study in pre-lockout hockey – immensely boring and stunningly effective.

It might have ended a 1-0 game, and that would have been fitting, but then Green made another lethal blunder (he wasn’t alone on the play) that would drive a stake into the Caps’ season. Racing Maxim Lapierre for a loose puck sliding into the Caps’ zone, Green got caught between decisions – whether to poke check the puck away (he was too far from the puck for that, and Lapierre had position), or to hit Lapierre. He did neither well and left the puck for the trailing Dominic Moore who collected it, swooped in on Varlamov, and beat him on the long side to give the Canadiens a 2-0 lead with 3:36 to go. In fairness to Green, his partner on the play – John Carlson – was guilty of the more egregious (if less obvious) mistake in being unacceptably slow getting back into the play after the puck was cleared over his head into the neutral zone. He rather glided through the neutral zone as Moore passed him by to get in position to collect the loose puck.

In a cruel twist, the Caps would get one back with 2:16 left when – finally – someone was able to collect a loose puck in close and do something with it. Brooks Laich lifted a backhand over Halak almost from his stomach.

But fate would deal one more cruel blow to the Caps – it gave them a power play in the form of a high-sticking penalty to Ryan O’Byrne with 1:44 left. Having misfired on 31 of 32 power plays in this series, the naïve and the gullible might have been inclined to say… “the law of averages says…” That would be a fool’s errand. The Caps’ power play sucked on toast for the entire series, and they played to form in getting two inconsequential shots on goal with a 6-on-4 man advantage, Varlamov having been pulled for the extra attacker. One last rush by Alex Ovechkin ended in – what else – a shot that was blocked back into the neutral zone, the only thing left being the sound of the horn in a silent arena.

Other stuff…

-- This is the biggest collapse in the history of the franchise. The 1986 team can now rest, the teams that lost to the Penguins all those times can unburden themselves. This is it. The only question is whether it is the biggest collapse in Stanley Cup playoff history. It isn’t as unique as the 1975 quarterfinals, when the New York Islanders came back from an 0-3 deficit to defeat the Pittsburgh Penguins, but the Islanders and Penguins finished in almost a flatfooted standing points tie that year. This is the first time since the current playoff format was instituted in 1994 that a number one seed lost a series after taking a 3-1 lead in games. But it isn’t even that….

-- The Caps lost three of four games on home ice (they are now 7-9 on home ice in the playoffs under Bruce Boudreau). They scored only ten goals on home ice in the series, six of them in one game.

-- They scored those ten goals on home ice on 154 shots. But here is at least as stunning a statistic – Montreal blocked 117 shots in four games in Verizon Center. Only two other playoff teams have a blocked shot total greater than that in the entire first round of games (the Canadiens blocked 41 shots tonight, testimony to their willingness to pay any price to win this game).

-- It has been 27 years since the Caps were held to one power play goal (1983 against the Islanders), and that was a four-game series (the Islanders won, 3-1).

-- The Caps total time in the lead over the last three games: 0:00. Not one blessed second.

And some other stuff…

-- It is going to be really tempting tonight and over the next day or two to opine that Mike Green should be traded (already heard that one on the way home on the radio), that Alexander Semin should be traded, that Bruce Boudreau should be fired, that George McPhee should be relieved of his duties. You don’t make personnel decisions emotionally. The Caps have some real soul searching to do, but as far as a complete housecleaning is concerned, it’s not going to happen. But if one thing has been laid bare, it is that this “rebuild” is not complete… not unless your idea of “rebuild” is “make the playoffs.”

-- One thing that is as obvious as the sun in the sky on a clear day is that this team has learned nothing. 2008, 2009, 2010, it doesn’t appear to matter. It is the gifted student who, despite all the admonitions to put in the work to master a subject, to study diligently, skates by on talent. Until the final exam. And then, when confronted with a test of his mettle, he has brain lock and fails.

-- There are two beefs in retrospect that it appears fair to lay at the feet of the coaching staff. First, it never adjusted to anything, save for a goaltending change and some ineffective tinkering with lines. The tinkering did little to address a strategic issue – Montreal was taking away the middle of the ice and standing the Caps up at the Canadien’s blue line. Then there was the matter of Alex Ovechkin, who was stymied for seven games in getting shots off in good scoring areas, the whole matter of that left handed defenseman on right handed shot thing. There wasn’t an answer evident in getting Ovechkin free. There was the stubborn repetition of coming down the left side, entering the zone, and shooting the puck into the blade of the stick of a Hal Gill or any number of other Canadien defenseman. There just weren’t any adjustments to what the Canadiens were doing.

-- The other beef is the idea of optional practices. You can make an argument that getting players rest in the midst of a tough playoff grind has merit. But a lot of these practices seemed a little too optional in retrospect.

-- And that brings us to the captain. We’re cautious about this, because one never gets to peek under the veil of team secrecy when it comes to injuries during the playoffs. One only gets a glimpse of how bad guys were hurting after the fact. But that said, what does it say about leadership when the captain is availing himself of his “option” to practice? A caller on the post-game radio show asked rhetorically if one would see Sidney Crosby taking such an option in the midst of the playoffs. It isn’t an entirely unfair question.

-- And what an empty year for Alex Ovechkin it became. No Olympic gold medal, two suspensions, no playoff wins. He seems likely, if not certainly, to be shut out of the post-season individual hardware (no Ross, no Richard, and he is no more than among the favorites for the Hart Trophy and renamed Lindsay Award). He is the captain of what might be the biggest underachieving team in the modern history of the NHL. It will not end as a signature season, despite the 50-goal, 100-point finish.

-- Four Games 7 in three years, three losses.  The only win coming against a team that couldn't shoot the puck into the lake from the dock.  And it shouldn't escape anyone's notice that the game winning goal in that win came off the stick of a player whose best years were far behind him, not from any of the collection of young talent that is so highly thought of on this team.  Although Tony Kornheiser labled the Caps of the 1980's and early 1990's "choking dogs," and while we suffered many of their disappointments in person, we had a soft spot for those clubs because their "will" was far greater than their "skill."  They just never had enough of the latter to get over the hump.  This team has given every indication over the past three years -- in playoff settings -- of having too much of the latter at the expense of the former when there is the chance to advance.  It cannot be dismissed that this team has too many tight collars about it in games that matter.

Few could have authoritatively argued before hand that what would betray the Caps were what was thought to be their strengths – their offense and their power play. Three goals scored in their last three games – all losses – and 1-for-33 (3.0 percent) on the power play. The things that the Caps allegedly couldn’t do – defend and tend goal – ended up being entirely acceptable. Allowing 19 goals by goaltenders (one empty netter) in seven games – a 2.71 goals allowed/game average – is virtually identical to that which won a Stanley Cup for Pittsburgh last year (2.67). But scoring 22 goals in seven games (17 of them in the wins in Games 2-4) is inconceivable.

Certainly, there are Caps both on the ice and in the press box tonight who will not be with the club next season. Such is the nature of the sport. But for those who do return in September for training camp, they had better find their hard-work gene, because without it there is no Stanley Cup in their future.

In the end, I am reminded of the fact that once upon a time, I was a teacher. And one of the immutable rules of teaching was, no matter how well you did during the semester, if you failed the final exam, you failed the course. Tonight was the final exam, and after failing it, the only people who could call this season successful on any score are either drawing a paycheck from the club, or they are suffering serious delusions.

Tonight, the season stands as a failure.

Period, and point blank.