Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 5, 2011

Lightning Strike Ends The Capitals’ Season Early

It wasn’t supposed to end like this. For the fourth consecutive year, the Washington Capitals ended the regular season on top of the NHL’s Southeast Division. For the second straight season, they were the number one seed in the Eastern Conference heading into the playoffs. Each of the three previous seasons ended in bitter disappointment. Twice in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs and once in the second, the Capitals were beaten in seven games by lower seeded teams. For three years in a row Alex Ovechkin and company were forced to endure a too-long off-season, the result of being defeated by what they undoubtedly believed were inferior opponents.

Last year’s playoff loss to the eighth seed Montreal Canadiens was the most egregious of the three. Washington steamrolled through the regular season, easily winning the President’s Trophy for the best record in the league while scoring 46 more goals than the next most prolific team. They raced out to a three games to one lead over Montreal and seemed ready to easily move on to the second round in what was surely a march to the finals. Except of course, that it wasn’t. The Canadiens, who weren’t even assured of a spot in the playoffs until the regular season’s final day, rallied to win three straight by shutting down the high-powered Washington offense which tallied but a single goal in each of the final three games.

In the wake of that humiliation, popular owner Ted Leonsis, general manager George McPhee, and head coach Bruce Boudreau all vowed that this season would yield a different result. The Capitals placed a greater emphasis on defense and greatly improved their performance in their own end. By season’s end their 197 goals allowed was the second lowest in the league. While they were no longer an offensive dynamo, they appeared to be a better balanced, more complete team. Certainly they looked as much while handling the New York Rangers in five games in the playoffs’ opening round.

After dispatching New York the Capitals had almost a week off to rest and recuperate from any nagging injuries before facing the fifth-seed Tampa Bay Lightning in the conference semifinals. The Lightning on the other hand took a full seven games to defeat the injury-ravaged Pittsburgh Penguins and had but a single off day between their clinching win in Pittsburgh and the opening second-round contest in D.C.

The Caps maintained their new disciplined style of play for the first 30 minutes of that opening game, and had a 2-1 lead to show for it. But then it was as if old habits of previous playoffs took over. Washington began to run and gun, playing “river hockey” as Boudreau called it in a post-game interview. That led to some sloppy play and the patient Lightning took full advantage, netting two goals in the closing minutes of the middle period to take the lead. When Tampa Bay added an empty net goal in the game’s final seconds, the underdog visitors had a 4-2 win.

Two nights later the Lightning put the Capitals in a deep hole with a 3-2 overtime win. Washington was fortunate to force the extra period when Ovechkin tied the game with just 68 seconds remaining. But a little over 6 minutes into overtime the Caps got caught in a stunningly slow and sloppy line change. Tampa Bay defenseman Randy Jones gathered the puck deep in his own end, and seeing virtually the entire Washington team headed for the bench fired a pass down the ice to the far blue line where winger Teddy Purcell was waiting. Purcell skated in with veteran Vincent Lecavalier. For the Capitals, only defenseman Mike Green was able to get back into position. Green attempted to block Purcell leaving Lecavalier wide open, and he calmly took the pass from Purcell and rifled the puck past Washington goalie Michal Neuvirth for the win.

The stunned Capitals were left to insist that they had dominated the first two games in everything but the score; and to be sure they had outshot the Lightning by a wide margin. But 41-year old goalie Dwayne Roloson was resolute between the pipes for Tampa Bay. He would be no less so on his home ice.

Whatever chance Washington had to turn the series around turned to dust in the final period of game three. Entering the period leading 3-2 in a virtual must-win contest, the Capitals were outhustled, outhit, and outplayed in what was perhaps the most crucial period of their entire season. They were also outshot 15-5 and outscored 2-0 as Tampa Bay rallied for a 4-3 victory.

As all NHL fans know only three teams have ever come back from a 3 game deficit to win a playoff series. The Capitals were not about to become the fourth. The following evening the Lightning never trailed as they swept the number one seed aside 5-3 to complete a stunning four-game sweep.

From top to bottom the Capitals had promised a different result after the 2010 collapse against Montreal. One presumes that going four and out was not exactly the change they had in mind. That in turn means that there will be pressure from Washington’s rabid fan base to make whatever personnel changes are necessary to produce a squad that wins when it really counts, during the playoffs. Some will demand coach Boudreau’s head, pointing to his 17-20 playoff record, while others will call for a new general manager in place of McPhee.

Despite the wishes of some, odds are both Boudreau and McPhee will still be around next season. Besides, in the end it’s the skaters on the ice who matter the most, and for all of the Capitals obvious talent, the great individual pieces never seem to add up to a winning whole team at crunch time. What seems lacking is a measure of heart and focus. In the two crucial games in Tampa, Niklas Backstrom didn’t have a shot on goal until the final period of the final game. In that same period Alexander Semin was seen jawing with a referee and then skating to the bench while a Tampa Bay rush was in the process of putting the Lightning on top 5-2. Even the incomparable Ovechkin contributed nothing more than a secondary assist with the season on the line. The Caps remain a very young team, loaded with talent but still lacking maturity. Perhaps the addition of a veteran or two, someone who has known the singular thrill of skating around a rink with the Cup hoisted overhead and thus knows just how hard it is to get to that moment would give the team what it needs, both in the locker room and on the ice.

Owner Leonsis, who acknowledged on his personal blog this morning that “the wheels fell off for us,” has endeared himself to fans by being reachable and responsive, even roaming the corridors of the Verizon Center between periods asking how their experience can be improved. With the Capitals’ season suddenly over, there won’t be any fans in those corridors for months to come. If there were, they would no doubt be mumbling over and over, that it just wasn’t supposed to end like this.

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Responses

  1. This was a great re-cap of another season that failed to earn the Caps an Eastern Conference playoff birth. I think the onus of this one is on the player’s shoulders and the fact that they need a legit goalie. You can’t win championships with just anybody between the pipes.

    The fact is that Roloson was awesome in Game 4 and the Lightning played good solid playoff hockey.

    The real eye-opener of the whole Washington Capitols effort was in the fact that on the play where the Bolts scored the 5th goal, Alexander Semin was skating half-assed and blaring at the refs that he’d been interfered with on the last play. He made it to the bench just as the goal was setup to score and it underlined the fact that that has been the kind of playoff voodoo that the Caps have reaped.

    A lot of it has to do with having great players that can score but don’t necessarily know how to win NHL championships. Ovechkin was great but the Caps need more players like Arnott and Knuble.

    Most importantly, they need to get a #1 solid (hungry for a cup) goalie. They could use some better D-men as well.

    You can’t blame management – especially when they addressed the entire playoff debacle from last year…no it’s got to be on the players.


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