The Capitals are now in the worst possible situation, in Tampa Bay, trailing the Lightning 3-0 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. While the Caps have dominated at certain times during the series, the Bolts have capitalized on opportunities presented to them by way of fluke bounces of the puck and on the power play. They can do this because they focus on individual responsibility in support of their team systems in all three areas of the ice. In short, they work everywhere, all the time.
Bruce Boudreau, his coaching staff, the players, and really, the rest of the organization to include Ted Leonsis, need to stop whining that certain goals for or against were circumstantial. The Capitals need to start creating their own luck. Tampa Bay has benefited several times from puck bounces, even scoring goals off of Caps players’ sticks. While there is a certain amount of luck at play, the Lightning players who benefit from it are in the right places at the right times. They work to get there.
It’s time for the Caps to do the same. No lead is safe. No power play is an opportunity to simply keep possession of the puck and coast. No loose puck is up for grabs. If the Caps are up by one, they should make it two. The power play should attack the net with pucks and bodies for the duration. The puck should always be in possession of a red sweater. Anything short of those objectives should be considered failure.
Every hit, pass, stride, and shot should be towards one goal. Win, by any means necessary.
Forget all of the words about this Capitals team learning how to play defensive hockey after last year’s debacle. The most important thing they should have learned is how to find that extra motivation to push past adversity. Even if it doesn’t exactly fit a particular player’s style or a team’s system, certain things have to be done to advance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Snipers like Alex Semin and Alex Ovechkin need to get their noses dirty in the blue paint. Struggling setup guys like Nicklas Backstrom have to find a way to contribute without throwing saucer passes cross ice the entire game. So called fourth line guys like Boyd Gordon, Matt Bradley, and Matt Hendricks, have to exploit weaker defense pairs and find a scoring touch. Super talented, puck moving prodigy defensemen like John Carlson and Karl Alzner need to find a nasty edge in front of the net. In the past four post season appearances, we have seen none of these things happen. Those are the changes needed to play true, Stanley Cup Playoffs hockey.
With 7 unrestricted and 2 restricted free agents, heading into this Summer, the Caps roster will undoubtedly look much different next Fall. But free agency and the salary cap shouldn’t be the only planning factor in the club’s 2011-2012 lineup. Special care and attention should be paid by general manager George McPhee and his staff to player qualities that will translate to playoffs success. How do players prepare for games during the grind? Are they mentally tough enough to withstand the pressure and be consistent, emotionally? Do they have the motivation to do things they wouldn’t normally do, just to win a game or series?
What of the coaching staff? Are they adequately preparing their players for each situation, game, or series? If you look at the mental lapses in bad line changes, untimely penalties, and poor defensive zone positioning, the answer is most certainly, no. A thought crept into my mind as I watched two leads get blown by the Caps in game three against the Lightning.
It looks like Bruce has lost the room. After turning a struggling, offensive juggernaut into a tight checking, “defense wins championships” club, the players seem to have abandoned all systems discipline and work ethic in the Conference Semifinals. Their body language indicates that they have given up. They try when they want to, not when they need to. If that is truly the case, we may very well see the departure of not only some of the “core” players but Bruce Boudreau and his staff, as well.
As this second round series winds down with yet another painful, early exit, as fans we are all left with the same questions we have been asking for the last 4 years. When will Alex Ovechkin lead the Caps to a Stanley Cup? When will the Capitals do all of the things necessary and make the personal sacrifices, to win a Cup? When will the Washington Capitals try to win a Cup, by any means necessary?