ARLINGTON, Va. – If you ask some of the players, one of the biggest first-round upsets in recent NHL history came about because the Washington Capitals tried to play regular season hockey in the playoffs. That opens the door to questions about leadership.
If you ask the coach or the general manager, they’ll say the Capitals played quite well and collapsed mainly because the other goaltender got hot. For the record, the general manager says the coach will be around “for a very long time.”
And the captain? The player many consider the best on the planet? He’s shouldering the blame with the words “it was my fault” and says the team needs to learn how to deal with pressure.
The Capitals were still stunned Friday as the players took their season-ending physicals and met the coaching staff one last time before heading home for the off-season.
“I’m still struggling today that we lost,” said coach Bruce Boudreau, who had huge, dark circles under his eyes. “I think it was ingrained in everybody that we were going to win. This was our year.”
The Capitals, who had the best regular season record in the NHL, blew a 3-1 series lead against the Montreal Canadiens before dropping Game 7 at home Wednesday. The young Capitals were supposed to have learned their playoff hockey lessons when they were knocked out by eventual champion Pittsburgh in the second round a year ago; instead, they were eliminated by a team that barely qualified for the post-season.
“I guess we haven’t learned anything yet,” centre Nicklas Backstrom said. “We have to keep teaching until we know how to close a series out.”
Other comments were telling.
Scott Walker: “We could play a little harder and compete a little bit better. That’s the most disappointing thing. I don’t think they’ve seen our ‘A’ game.”
Matt Bradley: “To not be ready for a playoff game shouldn’t happen. We didn’t work hard enough.”
Joe Corvo: “We just didn’t play, I guess, playoff hockey. Maybe we overlooked some of the small details as team. … You just have to step your game up a couple of levels and do things you haven’t done thing all year long.”
Asked about those comments?and whether they point to a deficiency in leadership?general manager George McPhee had a simple response.
“We were up 3-1,” McPhee said. “So we were obviously doing something right.”
McPhee offered his full support of Boudreau?not a surprise, at least for now?and couldn’t find enough ways to praise Canadiens goaltender Jaroslav Halak.
“We didn’t win the series because the goaltender shut us down for three games in a row,” McPhee said. “He was really good, and that’s the way it goes sometimes.”
Boudreau echoed those sentiments, but the coach added that some of his players came down with a case of the nerves.
“You could see guys holding their sticks so tight,” Boudreau said, “because they wanted to have success and they wanted to dream about the winning the Cup and they never thought they were going to lose in the first round.”
Among the Capitals culprits were Alexander Semin and Mike Green, goal-scoring machines in the regular season who didn’t get a single goal between them in the playoffs. Neither one spoke to the reporters assembled outside the locker room Friday.
But Alex Ovechkin didn’t mind taking the hit. This was his first playoffs as captain. Even though his overall numbers looked good?five goals and five assists in seven games?the two-time reigning league MVP knows he needs to do better if he’s ever to catch rival Sidney Crosby in the superstar sweepstakes.
“It was my fault. We need to score goals. And I have the chance to score goals, I didn’t score goals,” Ovechkin said.
Ovechkin said Green and Semin?and perhaps himself?felt the pressure compounding as shot after shot didn’t go in. He also said that maybe his teammates thought the series was over when the Capitals had a 3-1 lead after winning back-to-back games in Montreal.
As a captain, those are feelings he can’t allow to fester in the locker room in future playoff series.
“You just have to show more character in the locker room, on the ice,” Ovechkin said.
Ovechkin also agreed that the team needs to adjust better from the regular season to the playoffs.
“We just have to concentrate more about playoffs, more about how we have to play in the playoffs, not about the (regular) season,” he said. “We just have to be ready for playoffs and be ready for that kind of pressure.”
The prevalent feeling was that the Capitals are a young talented team that doesn’t need to make major changes, that they eventually will break through and win the franchise’s first Stanley Cup. For three years now, there’s been a sense of “Next year will be our year.”
Walker offered a warning against that kind of thinking.
“Eventually, as an older player, I can tell them that you run out of ‘next years,'” Walker said. “You have to make it while you can.”