Sunday, May 08, 2011

Questions: Does He Have What It Takes?

We’re going to get to the season by “the tens,” but before that we are going to ask a number of questions about this team. We do not claim to have the ultimate answers to those questions (as if that would stop our writing about it), but we do hope they inspire some conversation. The first one (actually, the same question we will pose in the second installment) asks…

"Does he have what it takes?"

Let’s start with a premise. Bruce Boudreau forgot more about hockey over his morning coffee than I am ever going to know if I live to the next millennium. But I can read a box score, and unless the laws of arithmetic have changed, four is greater than three (or two, or one, or zero) in all instances. And the Caps do not get to four often, in the playoffs that is.

But first things first. When a team was as ghastly as the Caps were from 2003-2004 through 2006-2007 – a period over which the Caps won only 80 of 246 games – no one but the deluded could expect or demand that such a team contend for a Stanley Cup. That is what made the 2007-2008 season so special. The Caps started slowly that season under head coach Glen Hanlon and were given up for dead before Santa received his wish lists from kids all over the world (Caps fans asked for sanity). Enter Bruce Boudreau, who oozed hockey from every pore of his being, a true lifer who loved the game and picked up nuggets of knowledge from just about every rink from Mississippi to Medicine Hat.

The run that followed had to be among the best times of a Caps fan’s life. “Improbable” doesn’t begin to capture what unfolded, culminating with an 11-1-0 finish that allowed the Caps to squeak past the Carolina Hurricanes into the playoffs. That the Caps would lose to the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the playoffs in 2008 could not even be considered much of a disappointment, such was the exhilaration of the climb through the standings that got them there.

But three more post seasons later we find that in four times in six attempts, the Capitals failed to reach the number “four” in games won before their competition in a playoff round. The only times they were able to get to “four” first were against the offensively challenged New York Rangers, which makes one wonder why head coach John Tortorella was given a contract extension.

Each playoff loss has been more frustrating than the last. The Caps came back from a three games to one deficit to force a Game 7 against the Flyers in 2008, only to lose that Game 7 on home ice on an overtime power play goal. They lost in 2009 after forcing a Game 7 with an overtime winner of their own on the road against Pittsburgh, only to lay an egg in Game 7 on home ice in a 6-2 loss. In 2010 it was gagging on a three games to one lead against Montreal, falling in Game 7 (again, at home) by a 2-1 margin. This year, there was no Game 7, the Caps being swept by Tampa Bay in four games.

Over the past four seasons, the Caps have been a case of two entirely separate concepts that neatly divide into the regular season and playoffs, but reflect a division between strategy and tactics. In the fall of 2007 the Caps were a team shackled to a play-it-safe approach under head coach Glen Hanlon that was ultimately a poor fit for the talent the Caps had collected on their roster. Bruce Boudreau replaced Hanlon in that fall of 2007, and it was a better fit of philosophy to talent. The Caps finished the season on a 37-17-7 run under Boudreau and an unexpected playoff berth. A large part of that success was that recognition of the talent on the roster and matching a philosophy to it. The Caps averaged almost a full goal more per game (3.13) under Boudreau in that season than they did under Hanlon (2.24).

It was a philosophy that was refined and improved – one that emphasized a pressure offense that took the heat off a green defense and uncertain goaltending. The Caps improved their scoring to 3.27 goals per game the following season and to 3.82 goals per game in 2009-2010. That the Caps were not an especially adept defensive team (2.67 goals per game in the last 61 games of the 2007-2008 season, 2.93 goals per game in 2008-2009, 2.77 in 2009-2010) did not seem to matter – they were 141-56-28 under Boudreau coming into the 2010-2011 season.

But three seasons of early playoff exits and an eight-game losing streak in December led to some re-thinking of the strategy. The Capitals had to play better defense to succeed in the long run, and the team adopted a more defense-oriented approach to their game. The results were stunning. After going 18-12-4 in their first 34 games (ending on that eight-game losing streak), averaging 2.91 goals a game while giving up 2.79 goals, the Caps finished the year 30-11-7, limiting opponents to 2.00 goals a game – a 28 percent reduction in average goals allowed.

In matching a style to talent and reworking that style to meet the realities of successful hockey in the contemporary era, Boudreau proved himself a superior coach in terms of developing and implementing a strategy. And that brings us to the post-season. The Caps have played in six playoff series over the past four years, and the only series wins they have to show for it are against the offensively challenged New York Rangers. Of the other four series, the first of them – the seven game loss to Philadelphia in 2008 – could be said to be a loss to a slightly superior club (the Flyers did finish with more points in the regular season than the Caps, despite the Caps furious rush to the finish). The other three playoff series losses revealed aspects that call into question the coach’s tactical acumen.

The three clubs to whom the Caps lost in those playoffs were, at first glance, quite different. The Pittsburgh Penguins, who beat the Caps in seven games in 2009, were a club that had high end talent in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but that displayed a tenacity up and down their roster that made them a difficult team to play against. The Montreal Canadiens, to whom the Caps lost in 2010, were a team of modest talent but that had a veteran defense, a solid goaltender, and that knew how to play responsibly in their own end, ingredients that allowed them to employ an offense that was more opportunistic (a fine power play, for example) than talented. This year, the Tampa Bay Lightning had talented veterans with Stanley Cup winning experience and made up for a lack of defensive skill with schemes matched to the skill level they had.

But the three teams had something in common in playing the Caps. All of them deployed tactics aimed at striking the Caps at their weak points. In 2009 the Penguins used a withering forecheck to create turnovers and unleash a barrage of shots at rookie goaltender Semyon Varlamov. The Caps won Games 1 and 2, but allowed 36 shots on goal in each. The barrage never stopped – or more to the point, the Caps never had an answer for it. The Penguins sent 154 shots on goal in Games 3-6, winning three of them and losing the other in overtime, scoring 17 goals along the way. By Game 7, Varlamov and the Capitals showed cracks, and in Game 7 the walls came tumbling down in a 6-2 loss in which Varlamov was chased and the competitive portion of the game was over before the second period was three minutes old.

In 2010, the Canadiens could not match the Caps’ firepower, so they employed something of a rope-a-dope strategy, packing the middle of the ice in their own end and blocking shots in bunches. The Capitals attempted an astounding 576 shots in the seven games (more than 82 per game). Almost a third of them were blocked. What is more, in the last three games of the series – all losses – the Caps attempted even more shots (more than 85 a game) with the same results, almost a third of them blocked. It was as if more of the same would create a different result. Montreal deployed a tactic for which the Caps had no answer, any more than they had one for the Penguins’ tactic the year before of punishing the Caps in their own end.

This year, "1-3-1" were not the winning numbers in the DC-3 lottery drawing, but the defense the Tampa Bay Lightning was using to stymie the Capitals. It was hardly a new wrinkle. And it wasn’t a decisive impediment to the Caps, who went 4-1-1 against the Lightning during the regular season. But once more, an opponent deployed a tactic in a short series for which the Caps had no ready answer.

But what was perhaps worse was that what the Caps had spent almost 50 games honing and perfecting was not there. The emphasis on defense, the improved penalty killing...where was it? Tampa Bay scored 16 goals in four games, and the Caps killed only 14 of 18 shorthanded situations (77.8 percent). It was almost a photo-negative of the previous spring, when it was the almost unstoppable offense that averaged 3.82 goals per game in the regular season that produced 22 goals in seven games, but only three in the last three contests on 134 shots on goal.

In the last three seasons the Capitals have had similarly disappointing post seasons in that the strengths displayed in the regular season were nowhere to be found in the playoffs. In 2009 the Caps were 3-0-1 against the Penguins in the regular season, holding the Penguins to 110 shots in the four games (27.5 per game). But come the playoffs, the Caps didn’t have an answer for the Penguins’ ability to forecheck the Caps into mistakes and bombard them with 256 shots (36.6 per game). In 2010 the Caps won the regular season series against the Canadiens with a 2-1-1 record, but succumbed to a goaltender they did not face in the regular season – Jaroslav Halak (Carey Price was the goaltender of record in all four regular season games) – for whom they could not find an answer, and they couldn’t find an answer to Montreal packing in their defense. In 2011, the numbers “1-3-1” presented an unsolvable problem in arithmetic as the Tampa Bay Lightning swept the Caps.

What it suggests is an ability to compose the broad contours of success – taking advantage of the gifted offensive talents on the roster, being able to retool to adopt a generally defense-oriented posture. But the lack of success in a short series, even against opponents against which the Caps had regular season success, point to a lack of nimbleness, an inability to adjust tactics on the fly, to react when the other guys act. When the Caps had 50 games or so to install and refine a new strategy, they did so effectively – in 2008 when the Caps abandoned the play-it-safe model under Glen Hanlon and again in 2011 when it became apparent that the Caps needed to shore up their own end of the ice. But when the Caps have had a week to act and react? In this year’s instance one might argue that injuries played a role, an argument that seems more convincing with every revelation since the season ended. However, there is a body of work here now spanning four seasons. And the result has been that unless the other team plays its home games in Manhattan, the job hasn’t gotten done in the playoffs.

And that brings us to one question that perhaps brings the matter into focus. If the Caps are now a team for which only the playoffs matter, is it reasonable to conclude that Bruce Boudreau has what it takes in the short series format to succeed?

He might not be the problem for the Capitals, but it seems that neither is he the solution. The results speak for themselves.