“Ovechkin, unassisted”; in addition to being the offical scorer’s line on Washington’s first goal tonight, those two words provide a useful guide to most of the series between the Capitals and Penguins.
As I write this, the third period is winding down and running out the clock on the Capitals’ season. Already, the fans of DC’s hockeyists at Japers’ Rink are lamenting their fate, turning on their team and blaming the referees in earnest. Caps fans are convinced that the zebras are against them in general, likely because of a suspicion (rooted in paranoia, but also based on the Penguins’ historical dominance over their club) that the league is in the tank for their poster boy, Penguins forward Sidney Crosby. Going in to this game, the Caps had been shorthanded 11 more times than their Pennsylvanian rivals; the conspiracy theorists would have you believe that this is evidence of bias in the officiating, but it’s not. The officiating has been terrible – Laich’s penalty with two minutes to go in a tied game 6 was brutal, and the penalty on Morrisonn at the eleven minute mark of the first period tonight was laughable. It is true that the Penguins’ goal on the ensuing power play ignited the rout. But all in all, the Caps were undisciplined and reckless; that type of play inevitably results in time spent in the penalty box. Stung by the Penguins power-play in general (and Crosby in particular), the Caps refused to adjust and paid the price for their intransigence. The league and its officials didn’t do the Caps in; they didn’t have to. The Caps did a good enough job of that for themselves.
There is plenty of blame to go around for the loss of this series. After playing a terrific first two games and showing some defensive responsibility and commitment to teamwork, the wheels fell off the Washington bus. In general, the Capitals seemed to simply wait for Ovechkin to carry them to victory; the balance of the supporting cast – with the exception of Backstrom, who (in my opinion) was tremendous – played either poorly or ineffectively and the Penguins won 4 of the next 5 games. Ovechkin unassisted indeed.
The Capitals’ failure began in net. Simeon Varlamov coughed up brutally soft goals in at least two of those games, including the second Penguin goal tonight (a cheap five-hole gift scored 8 seconds after the first Penguin marker). Bad goals are like gut punches; it takes the wind out of a team and steals energy straight from their legs. Certainly in tonight’s game 7, the difference between the Capitals’ level of jump pre- and post- second goal was noticeable. It seemed that the team disappeared almost entirely after Varlamov coughed up a hairball at a critical moment in the game. The Penguins had clearly identified a weakness in Varlamov’s game high on the glove side, and the soft goals kept coming, derailing any chance of a comeback. The Capitals couldn’t, and didn’t, recover from subpar goaltending. I know the fellows in the game thread at Japers’ Rink were busy talking themselves into Varlamov as their goalie of the future, or at least challenging Michal Neuvirth for the number one spot. The young goalie played very well at times, especially early in the Rangers series – but the fact remains that this stone cold rookie was only in the series at all because veteran netminder Jose Theodore had laid a stinking turd in the first game of the playoffs; bad enough for coach Bruce Boudreau to give up on him almost immediately as the post season began. In addition, even while winning the Rangers series, Varlamov seemed panicked and scrambly, fighting the puck at times; he was fortunate that the Rangers offence was so anemic. He would not be so lucky when he faltered in round two against Crosby, Malkin and the rest of the Penguins.
Bottom line: even with a 2-0 series lead, you can’t afford to have your goaltender give away two games to the defending Conference champions and expect to win.
Varlamov was not alone in coughing up defensive hairballs; one enduring image of this series for me will be the sight of Sidney Crosby standing unopposed off the right post of the Capitals’ net, whacking at loose pucks repeatedly – and NOT being bowled over for his efforts. All of the Capitals defenders were guilty of playing the puck and not the man in desperate times, and it cost the Capitals five or six goals over the course of the series.
Speaking of the Capitals defenders, Mike Green seemed simply unable to contribute in his usual fashion. Aside from one or two plays – I am thinking of a pass he made to Ovie for a bullet one-time goal in game two and the play he made walking in off the point before scoring top cheese on Fleury in game six – Green was not a factor. This despite this blog’s call to him for action. I believe that Green had to have been injured throughout the playoffs; he simply didn’t show the dazzling speed and laser-quick transition to attack that we saw in last year’s postseason and throughout the league schedule this year.
Laich and Semin too seemed lost and easily handled by a steady but unexceptional Pittsburgh defence. Too often when the Capitals were facing a deficit and needing a spark, these players and others (including Ovechkin himself) chose to attempt to generate chances and offence all by themselves, preferring a relatively easy shot from the perimeter or a lone-ranger rush rather than working together to produce quality high percentage scoring opportunities.
It’s not all gloom and doom for Caps fans. The team has a core of quality offensive talent, including the game’s most exciting and gifted offensive talent, and a Norris-trophy candidate defenseman. Backstrom is under-rated as a puck carrier, playmaker and offensive threat, and Laich, Semin, Bradley, Steckel Fleischmann and Erskine have all shown evidence of playing at a high level and performing useful functions for a winning team. Remember that in the 90’s, the Detroit Red Wings had to endure a series of half a dozen disappointing playoff exits before gaining sufficient postseason experience to enable them to win the Stanley Cup in ’96-’97. Even the great Oilers team of the mid-80s had to lose to (then) perennial Cup Champion New York Islanders in the Final before learning what it takes to win and starting a dynasty of their own. Hell, all the Washingtonians had to do is look across the faceoff circle deep into the Penguins’ eyes; Pittsburgh is a young team that feels the ache of getting to a Cup final and losing – it happened just last year. Only time will tell if the Penguins have truly mastered the lesson taught.
The point is that the Caps weren’t supposed to win last year, and they weren’t supposed to win the Cup this year either. The team has, however, been in a playoff crucible over the past two seasons, playing seven win-or-go-home games while contesting just three seven game series. No doubt, management has learned much about the team, and the players have learned much about themselves. The club knows what it has – and what it does not. Defence remains a priority, as does a physical presence that can generate energy on the third line. I pointed out to Caps fans back in February that goaltending was a concern, and in my opinion poor goaltending nearly cost the Caps the series against the Rangers; that deficiency (in the form of too many soft goals) did cost them the series against the Penguins, notwithstanding Varlamov’s occasional brilliance. As pointed out, the young netminder has shown some true capability, but he has also been shown to have a glaring and obvious weakness on his glove side; he will need to address that problem with significant work over the summer to have a chance of remaining in the league in the long-term. If Capitals management is smart, they will pursue an upgrade in net over the summer whether through the draft, or more likely via free agency or the trade market. The window of opportunity for a young and talented Capitals team will begin to open perhaps as early as next year; the organization cannot affort to wager the future on Varlamov at this time, because – in addition to moments of undoubted otherworldly brilliance – he has shown himself to be pedestrian at times.
It’ll be a long and bitter summer for Ovechkin, his teammates and Washington management. If they all learn the proper lessons from it, it will prove to be a good thing for the team in the long run.
(h/t to Fehr and Balanced for the post title)