When I spoke with Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis before the season, he left only enough room for daylight between his forefinger and his thumb and said, “Washington is this close to becoming a hockey town.”
That gap was closed even more this season. The Capitals sold out every game but one after Christmas this season, set a franchise record for points and captured the imaginations of both their own fan base and the hockey world with breathtaking feats of skill and excitement.
But their hugely disappointing 6-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 7 of the second round not only brought their season to a grinding halt, it also exposed a number of holes the Capitals will have to address if they want to go from fan darling to true Stanley Cup contender.
They certainly aren’t there yet and in some ways, they’re not even close. The question now becomes, what do the Capitals – and specifically their GM George McPhee – do to guard against future disappointments in the playoffs?
Well, the first thing the Capitals need is way more structure in their game. In the opinion of this corner, Sidney Crosby did not outplay Alex Ovechkin in the second round. The fact of the matter is both players were equally brilliant. The difference, however, was that Crosby’s game in the playoffs was more mature than Ovechkin’s.
What Ovechkin and the rest of the Capitals have to learn is that once they get down in a game, it’s not necessary for them to go freelancing all over the ice and try to do everything themselves. Nor is it necessary to throw out the playbook the moment you get yourself into a hole.
But what the Capitals need most is for someone to teach them there are rewards to playing diligent hockey without the puck and inside your own blueline. But it must be done without stifling the creativity and spontaneity that has made the Capitals the most exciting young team in the league.
Because the sad reality is the game is over-coached. Men who stand behind the bench have more of an effect on the game than ever and as much as many people would not like that to be the case, it’s the reality of the situation. There’s a reason why the Pittsburgh-Washington series was so exciting. It was because you had two relatively inexperienced NHL coaches whose bent is toward offense and there were mistakes being made all over the ice. Mistakes lead to offensive opportunities and offensive opportunities lead to goals and excitement.
But, unfortunately, that’s not a recipe for winning the Stanley Cup. Now, Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau is not the man to instill that philosophy on the Capitals and there’s nothing wrong with that. He brings so many other positive attributes to the job and has such loyalty from the players that there is no doubt he is the right man to be behind the bench. But what Boudreau needs now is someone to help him get that message across to his team. What he needs is an assistant coach such as Craig Ramsey or Perry Pearn, a guy who’s perfectly content to be the second-in-command and is willing to stand by and quietly do his work, while all those around him get rave reviews for their work. There are a lot of those kinds of guys out there and the Capitals would be well advised to get their hands on one of them.
As far as personnel is concerned, the Capitals need to solidify their goaltending, but they also need some players on defense who are willing to do the dirty work in their own end and, no, Jay Bouwmeester is not the answer. The last thing you need when you’re a team that is looking for success in the playoffs is someone who hasn’t even been there before himself.
The Capitals need a junkyard dog, someone who will make opposing pretty boys think twice about dangling and standing in front of their net. They could also use a Selke Trophy-caliber forward or two and a couple of guys up front who aren’t afraid to go to the difficult areas for scoring chances.
That might seem like a lot of work for a team that is already regarded as one of the best in the league, but there’s a pretty fair distance between where the Capitals are now and being a constant and legitimate Stanley Cup contender. And the best thing for the Capitals is that it’s not something a couple of bold moves won’t fix.
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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 appears Wednesday and Fridays and his column, Campbell’s Cuts, appears Mondays.
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