I didn’t watch game four. I knew what the outcome would be. I knew because the reality of the 2010-2011 season for the Washington Capitals finally hit me. The Capitals organization, as it is constructed today, cannot make a run for the Stanley Cup. The writing was on the wall from the very first week of the season. As fans, we were bamboozled for a third year. My tolerance for the Capitals organization’s repeated incompetence ended Tuesday night.
Let’s go back to the first and second games of the regular season.
I was prompted to do this by a comment Jill Sorenson made on Washington Post Live following the game last night. As I was walking out of the rink in Hagerstown after a spirited pickup hockey session where I am sure more effort was exerted by us amateurs than the Caps, the CSN Washington reporter mentioned the season opener with the Atlanta Thrashers. She said that the Caps fizzle against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round was the perfect bookend to how the season began. I couldn’t agree more. In that game against Atlanta, poor effort and mental mistakes led to a loss on the road against a team that simply outworked the Caps. Throughout the season, opponents that should have been considered inferior to the Capitals’ talented roster, put forth more on ice effort, and the Capitals struggled.
The next night after the disappointment in Atlanta, the Capitals actually showed up at home against a New Jersey Devils team that was expected to do well this season. Compared to the first game, the pace in the second game of the regular season was incredible. While Alex Ovechkin was relatively quiet in Atlanta, at home against a potential playoff contender, he actually showed up. This motivation to play hard against teams considered contenders for the Conference championship or even Cup, would also continue for the duration of the season.
In between the shaky start and embarrassing collapse at season’s end, we were taken on a roller coaster ride. The team looked to be successful with its high flying offense, early on. Then, the entire team seemed to go into a slump. As Bruce Boudreau explained, instead of trying to score goals, the Capitals would shift their focus to prevent being out scored. And they did, sort of. There was an epic losing streak that was broken and the new defensive Caps looked to be peaking at just the right time heading into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. General manager George McPhee had seemingly found the right pieces to complete a roster poised for a long Cup run. Wow, were we all fooled.
The fundamental problems still existed just below the surface. The Capitals players still lacked the mental preparation and motivation to play a complete playoff game. They were mentally soft. It was not about conditioning. It was not about which players attended optional practices which are not going to help a player with 4 minutes left in a third period, anyway. The Washington Capitals were outworked by a Tampa Bay Lightning team. The key word being, team.
The Bolts fully bought in to head coach Guy Boucher’s philosophy. He knew exactly what, when, and how to say the things to each player in his room to help them mentally prepare for each game. Boucher’s success in this communication showed up in a Bolts team that worked hard everywhere on the ice, in every situation.
In the Caps’ room, based on playoffs performance, I feel like Bruce Boudreau’s message to his players has either been wrong or he has no idea how to communicate to each player. In either case, while the players should not need much help “getting up” for games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the coach has to be there to guide his team. He has to be there to help each player mentally prepare for the grind. Bruce Boudreau and his coaching staff clearly failed to do this against Tampa Bay.
While all of this was going on, we have majority owner, Ted Leonsis repeating his “everybody love everybody” mantra and eventual we apologize but don’t think it was really our fault message. From top to bottom, the Washington Capitals organization is soft and arrogant. Any fan or media mention of anything negative about the organization is met with an immediate attack. It’s usually something to the tune of George McPhee’s infamous quote in the HBO 24/7 special, “if they knew anything about the game, they’d be in it.” Yet in the years since the lockout and during their much hyped rebuilding at the direction of Uncle Ted, the all-knowing Caps’ management has struggled to find the right formula of players and coaches to bring a championship to Washington. They blame their failures on injuries, bad luck, bad match-ups, or my favorite, they were just better than us. Champions do not make excuses.
Even though I am just a fan (who has followed the Capitals longer than some of the current roster has been alive), I challenge the organization to change their corporate culture. From top to bottom, actions should speak louder than words. If you say, “our goal this year is to make the Stanley Cup Final” and do not succeed in that endeavor, someone should have to answer. No more excuses. Pointing at coincidental circumstances and whining about them should no longer be accepted as a reason for failure. I do not want to see another player contract extended mid-season, if that player has not significantly contributed to the team’s progress towards a Cup. Mandatory morning skates and regular practices should outnumber optional ones for all players fit to participate. Again, not for conditioning. It’s important for players to work on systems together on the ice. Not just in the video room. Finally, staff the entire organization with people willing to put in the effort as one team.
Winning a Cup is about out working the opposition, a game at a time, in a race for 12 wins. That means, everyone to include office staff, training staff, coaches, and players, have to show up for every minute of their respective work days. It is well passed the time that the current organization be held to that standard. Hopefully, a culture of personal and team accountability will develop next season.