Conventional wisdom suggests that before a team wins a Stanley Cup it must, for some reason, suffer a crushing, heart-wrenching upset somewhere along the way.
Well, the Washington Capitals can now tick that one off their playoff to-do list. By becoming the third Presidents’ Trophy-winner in the past five years to lose in the first round of the playoffs, the Capitals completed one of the all-time choke jobs in NHL history.
And while the undisputed deciding factor in the series was the play of Canadiens goalie Jaroslav Halak, the Capitals will have some serious soul-searching to do when they do a post-mortem on the wreckage that was the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs. And if the Capitals go into the summer thinking that only a spectacular goaltending performance and a brutal call by the referees in Game 7 were the only things keeping them out of the second round, they’re fooling themselves.
First of all, GM George McPhee can go to bed the rest of this summer and pound his pillow in frustration, but he certainly shouldn’t hit the sheets thinking he didn’t do enough to give his team every chance to win the Stanley Cup. When he looked at his roster prior to the trade deadline, he saw a team that needed to be more difficult to play against and one that had to be better killing penalties. So he went out and got Scott Walker and Eric Belanger up front and Milan Jurcina and Joe Corvo on defense.
So, let’s look at the players skating on the ice and the man behind the bench. Is Bruce Boudreau the right person to coach this team at this point in its development?
There is little doubt Boudreau is a good coach in the NHL and has both an excellent grasp of the technical aspects of the game and a unique ability to relate to his players and make them play hard for him. His road to the NHL makes him a unique and compelling story and his stock as a coach has risen meteorically since taking over the Capitals.
But you have to wonder if there’s a team that needs a kick in the hockey pants more than the Capitals do now. What might bring out the best in the team is a taskmaster who makes his players accountable and uncomfortable. Perhaps the star-laden Capitals aren’t on edge enough when it comes to their own performance. Maybe they need someone who is going to play head games with them, call them out in the media and not be afraid to sit out an elite player when he’s not producing.
Now, I’m not necessarily advocating Boudreau should be fired or take the fall for the Capitals playoff disappointments, but it’s certainly something to consider. When you fail this badly in the post-season every aspect of the organization, including coaching, has to be reviewed. Boudreau has his strengths as a coach and perhaps it’s those attributes that bring out the best in his players. But he’s certainly not going to instantly become the hard-ass the coaching cycle of this team seems to require at the moment.
Perhaps that kind of coach can push the buttons that need to be pushed in order to make the Capitals’ best players play better when they’re needed most. Mike Green has been a Norris Trophy-caliber defenseman for the past two seasons, but has turned into an all-round liability in the post-season. He seems utterly unable to handle the extra attention that comes with playing in the playoffs. Alex Semin seems to shoot the puck whenever he gets it, from wherever he has it and there seems to be almost no structure to his game. His compete level also needs an enormous upgrade in big games.
And Alex Ovechkin, the league’s possible most valuable player, has to take his share of the blame for this loss as well. He had a respectable five goals and 10 points in the series, but really wasn’t much of a factor when he was needed most. Even worse, he reverted back to being the predictable player he was last year when things got desperate. Instead of calmly going about his business and using his teammates, Ovechkin once again tried to win the game on every rush up the ice. His shot selection that seemed to improve so much over the course of the season evaporated and he began firing the puck into Hal Gill’s and Josh Gorges’ pads with alarming regularity.
And when he wasn’t doing that, he was blasting low percentage shots from bad spots that any goalie, forget one that was in some kind of incredible zone, could stop. When Ovechkin couldn’t beat a defenseman to the outside, he cut back inside and tried to shoot between the defenseman’s legs, seemingly to no avail.
And don’t forget the Capitals, who had the best power play in the regular season, couldn’t adjust to Montreal’s shot-blocking and goaltending. It’s almost as though Ovechkin’s game, along with the rest of the Capitals, still has some maturing to do before it reaches its full potential.
Will that happen with a good guy such as Boudreau behind the bench? Perhaps, but the feeling here is that everybody’s favorite guy in hockey is going to have to get a little less warm and fuzzy with his players. If Boudreau is capable of doing that, the Capitals might just be fine. But if he simply doesn’t have it in him, they might need to replace him if they want to take their game to another level.
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear Wednesdays and Fridays and his column, Campbell’s Cuts, appears Mondays.
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