Wednesday, May 25, 2011

How Clear the Reflection?

Over at Japers' Rink, the question was posed, "Is San Jose’s window closing? Read this and see how many similarities you can point out to the local puckers."  "This" refers to a column authored by ESPN hockey analyst Pierre LeBrun about the San Jose Sharks' going home from the Stanley Cup playoffs empty-handed once more.  And JP's question asked about how many similarities there are between the Sharks and the Washington Capitals.  Well, we took a look at LeBrun's comments, and penned a "parallel universe" sort of thing from the Caps' last two seasons (LeBrun's words in bold)...

The San Jose Sharks played their guts out Tuesday night in a 3-2 double-overtime loss, outshooting the victorious Vancouver Canucks 56-34, but went home empty-handed after five games in the Western Conference finals.

In 2010 the Washington Capitals played their guts out in a 2-1 Game 7 loss, outshooting the victorious Montreal Canadiens 42-16, but went home empty handed in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.

It's a feeling the Sharks are getting mighty tired of. They failed to reach the Stanley Cup finals once again when they looked every bit as dangerous as any other team in the league.

It’s a feeling the Caps are getting mighty tired of. This season they failed to get past the second round for the fourth consecutive season, the last three of which when they looked as dangerous as any team in the league.

How many more times will they get here? Is the window for them closing?

How many more times will they get here? Is the window for them closing?

What's puzzling about the Sharks is that they've knocked out the powerhouse Detroit Red Wings two years in a row -- no small achievement. But they've followed that up by losing eight of the nine games they've played in the Western Conference finals.

What’s puzzling about the Caps is that they set a record for points by a non-Original Six team in 2009-2010 and posted their third straight 100-point season in 2010-2011 – no small achievement. But in the last four years they have lost in the playoffs to teams seeded below them in the tournament.

Glass half full or half empty?

Does the regular season matter?

We can think of many NHL teams that would celebrate back-to-back conference finals appearances. Heck, fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs still revere those back-to-back trips in 1993 and 1994 as legendary moments in the franchise's history.

We can think of many NHL teams that would celebrate three consecutive 100-point seasons.

The Sharks, however, self-admittedly set a loftier goal for their season once again: the Stanley Cup. Great teams aren't shy about setting the bar high. It shows confidence. But when the team falls short, questions are asked.

The Caps, however, do not give the appearance of a team setting the bar high with confidence. “We will look back at our series against the New York Rangers and see a 4-1 in games scorecard but we will know that our series had 2 OT games and every game was close with no margin of error. Luck played a big role in what we did… ("Ted's Take,” April 26, 2011)

This second trip to the Western Conference finals and subsequent quick exit revealed a few truths: Thornton, Ryane Clowe, Logan Couture, Dan Boyle and Douglas Murray are up to the task. They brought it night in and night out and paid the price to have success in the playoffs. Clowe played the entire playoffs with a shoulder injury, McLellan revealed after the game. Clowe was so upset after the loss that he couldn't talk to reporters. This team needs more guys that care like he does.

The last few post-seasons and early exits revealed a few truths: Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom are up to the task. They brought it night in and night out and paid the price to have success in the playoffs. Backstrom’s lack of production in the playoffs this past season might have been a product of a hand injury that took away is greatest gift, his ability to set up plays. Ovechkin played with nagging injuries for most of the season, yet still produced in the post season. The Caps need more guys who bring their “A” game like these two.

But there are still too many passengers on this team.

But there are still too many passengers on the team.

First and foremost, the challenge for GM Doug Wilson is to improve his blue line. The speedy Canucks exposed his defense in this series. Boyle and Murray hung in there, but after that, it was slim pickings. The injury to Jason Demers hurt, but the fact is the Sharks need to prioritize adding a top-four blueliner in the offseason. Look, we know they don't grow on trees, but that's a glaring need on this team.

First and foremost, the challenge for GM George McPhee is to improve the team's compete level. Going out early against teams ranked below them in the standings suggests that there is too much reliance on skill, not enough on grit, an ability to grind their way through a tough series. We know, that’s a hard commodity to identify, but that’s a glaring need on this team.

Up front, the Sharks have to figure out what to do with Dany Heatley. His back-to-back 50-goal seasons in Ottawa seem like eons ago, his goal production has slipped dramatically and his inability to keep up with the playoff pace is a stunning reality. Heatley has three more years left on his deal at a $7.5 million cap hit. Heatley needs to have one of the hardest-working offseasons of his career, because three goals in 18 playoff just games doesn't cut it.

Up front, the Caps have to figure out what to do with their second line center position. Jason Arnott is an unrestricted free agent, and Marcus Johansson – who will someday be a fine player – has growing to do. They also need to figure out Alexander Semin. A hugely gifted winger, the Caps have not found a way to tap that skill consistently in the playoffs.

Devin Setoguchi is a restricted free agent July 1. He had seven goals in these playoffs, two of them overtime winners. But his performance was inconsistent and frustrated the coaching staff. Do the Sharks re-sign him or explore his trade value at the draft?

Brooks Laich is an unrestricted free agent July 1. He had one goal in the playoffs, following a regular season with 16. And that comes after a playoff with two goals that followed a regular season of 25. That kind of dropoff can frustrate a coaching staff. Do the Caps resign him at the $4 million he might command on the open market?

And what about Joe Pavelski, who exploded on the bigger stage last season with a clutch postseason and a terrific Olympics? Pavelski's playoff production dropped from an impressive 17 points (9-8) in 15 games last spring to 10 points (5-5) in 18 games this year. His two helpers Tuesday night were actually one of his better games. Still, what gives? Yes, last year he had a top-six role in the playoffs while this spring he dropped to third-line center, but he still racked up important power-play minutes. His slight regression is troubling for the Sharks.

And what about Eric Fehr, who had three goals in seven games against Montreal in last year’s playoffs, but was injured this post season and had only one goal in five games? His inability to approach the goal-scoring production he had in juniors, coupled with his injury history, has to be troubling for the Caps.

On the flip side, the evolution of the captain this season was hugely encouraging. Thornton took his game to new heights, especially in the playoffs, playing both sides of the puck like never before. His willingness to sacrifice offense for two-way play is reminiscent of the great Steve Yzerman. So is Thornton's willingness to play through pain, the star center revealing afterward he separated his shoulder in Game 4 but played through it Tuesday night.

On the flip side, the evolution of the captain was somewhat encouraging. Alex Ovechkin’s goal total plummeted from 50 last season to 32 this season, but his embracing the defense-first makeover the Caps implemented in their eight-game losing streak in December was essential for the rest of the team adopting it. And he still produced five goals in nine games in the post season, giving him 25 in 37 career playoff games.

In the end, the Sharks will look back on these playoffs and regret not disposing of the Anze Kopitar-less Kings in fewer than six games and not ending Detroit's season earlier than seven games after taking a 3-0 series lead. That sucked the life out of the Sharks, and they had nothing in the tank for the opening two games of the conference finals.

In the end, the Caps will look back on the last four years of disappointments and regret not being able to advance past lower-seeded teams and playing in so many seven-game series that sapped their energy or resulted in losses.

It's a lesson the Sharks must remember for next season when they'll try yet again to get over the hump.

It’s a lesson the Caps must remember for next season when they’ll try yet again to get over the hump.

"I'm sure we'll probably sit back and think about it," Couture said. "Right now, the sting of the loss is so tough to overcome. It just sucks. It sucks."

“I’m sure they’ll probably sit back and think about it," a Caps fan said. “Right now, the sting of the losses has to be so tough to overcome. It just sucks. It sucks.”

No two situations are identical, and this applies to the Sharks and the Caps in this instance.  But both teams have a shared history of playoff frustration, and neither team has won a Cup.  The question for both of them now becomes, "do they have it within them to reach that goal, or have we seen the best they have to offer?"


miseenjeu said...

Biggest difference -- the quote in the last paragraph is from a Sharks player, but a Caps fan.

Unfortunate thing, the Caps have been saying the right things for the past two seasons, but we didn't see much change this spring.

Goat said...

I think the biggest difference is the one pointed out in the "outward appearance" comparison. Where the Sharks are outwardly upset as an organization about not making it farther in the playoffs, the Caps, from the top down, are talking about what a wonderful season it was.

Anonymous said...

Not only what Goat said, but another huge difference I see is, the Sharks aren't making any excuses about their loss, whereas the Caps higher ups have the excuse-making down to a science.

All this tells me is, next season will more of the same status quo, the same rah rah Rock the Red to fire up the faithful to expect a different outcome...this time. Only this time, as in times past, the Caps will most likely exit the playoffs early again, and we will hear about a hot goalie, bad bounces, bad luck, and whatever else they can recite from their laundry list of excuses.

It's a well-practiced art and act, so don't be surprised to see the stage show continue for more performances. And let's not let the players off the hook either. They've become so accustomed to having excuses made for them by their enablers--Ted Leonsis, George McPhee, and Bruce Boudreau--that they will repeat the chorus.

Rob said...

More amazing stuff, Peerless! Keep up the great work!

The other question is whether Boudreau and McPhee can import more players and rid the team of passengers -- and whether Boudreau will be around to see it unfold.