Turns out, R.J. Umberger was right.
This is what Umberger said after his Columbus Bluejackets lost a close game at home to the Caps just a couple of weeks ago, right before the start of the NHL postseason:
“They float around in their zone, looking for breakaways and odd-man rushes.
“A good defensive team is going to beat them (in the playoffs). If you eliminate your turnovers and keep them off the power play, they’re going to get frustrated because they’re in their zone a lot.”
Funny thing is, the Capitals were so ineffectual in combating Montreal’s defensive structure in the back half of this series that no volume of power plays would have aided their cause. The Caps, a team that from November on flirted with 30 percent efficiency on the power play, and finished at the very top of the league in the extra man category, managed just a single power play tally in 33 tries in this series. Call that culprit no. 1.
- Culprit no. 2 was a club of spectacularly underachieving mega-millionaires, Mike Green and Alexander Semin foremost among them. Green was hurt last postseason, and so this was to be a spring of redemption for him. Hardly. In this series he hardly staked a defense against his being left off the Canadian Olympic hockey team (the one that won gold without him). He wasn’t one-dimensional in this series, he was zero dimensional.
- As for Semin, his enigma aura ebbed at its lowest with this series. The 40-goal scorer of the regular season pumped 44 shots on goal against the Habs, but the overwhelming majority of them were of the low quality variety. He fired and misfired indiscriminately. He was part of a second line that failed to tally a single goal in the series, sweeping away the vaunted offensive depth the Caps were envied for all season long. His talent is prodigious, but his disappearing act has worn out his welcome in Washington.
No championship-aspiring hockey club can survive having its best players go AWOL. And when pitted against a team committed to playing team defense, executing it spectacularly for three consecutive, series-concluding games, one committed to shot-blocking until there are bruises on top of bruises, finesse almost always loses out to guts and drive. The Habs, to a man, were sacrificers. So sacrificers opposed a club of pretty-finesse, with a great goalie backstopping the sacrificers. Who would you wager on in the NHL postseason?
You’re too soft, especially on the back end, bloggers began alleging after last spring’s failure. Pittsburgh, too, had high-end skill selected high in the draft, and when it underachieved Pens’ management brought in piss-n-vinegar bodies like Hal Gill and Bill Guerin and, guided by an American League bench boss tapped in mid-season, solidly outperformed the Caps last postseason and went on to win the Cup. Gill and Guerin could have been acquired for a song.
- Culprit no. 3 was Montreal netminder Jaroslav Halak. Over the series’ final three games Halak stopped 128 of the 131 shots he faced: 37 of 38 in game 5; 53 of 54 in game 6; and 41 of 42 in game 7. It’s likely that the absolute youngest of Red Rockers won’t see a three-game performance the likes of Halak’s in this series in his or her lifetime. Necessarily one of playoff hockey’s greatest feats of goaltending came against the Caps.
- Culprit no. 4 — more damning than any other — was having a roster constructed for a non-checking beer league, rather than a Stanley Cup. Hal Gill was a cornerstone of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ club that snuffed out the Caps last spring, and of course he was a shot-blocking and stifling slot presence in this seven-game series. New media began questioning the finesse architecture of the Capitals gong back to last fall’s training camp. George McPhee gambled on Gabby’s system. This morning, there are very serious questions about it, and about the man who devised it and especially about his role as an in-game tactician.
Gabby’s system, in its essence, says: you can sit back and clog all you want but ultimately my offense will overpower you. George McPhee — including especially with his trade deadline acquisitions of Eric Belanger and Joe Corvo — spent the past few years assembling a quick finesse roster in support of it. The Penguins and their power forwards dominated it down low last spring. A 33-point shortcomer Montreal club relatively easily defended it this one. As George McPhee ponders changes to his roster for 2010-11 — and there will be changes, there have to be changes — he’d do well to think about acquiring more players in the mold of Jason Chimera.
- Playoff failures accumulated over multiple seasons help a manager thin his herd. Certain players possess a look of calm with a postseason’s pressure — Boyd Gordon and Jason Chimera do, Alexander Semin and Tomas Fleischmann do not.
- The Jose Theodore tenure in D.C. is over. I stand by my initial assessment of his signing: he didn’t perform as an elite netminder when it counted; his signing did not advance the Capitals’ Cup aspirations but rather delayed them.
- Bruce Boudreau has coached 225 NHL regular season games and earned a gaudy .701 winning percentage in them. In the postseason, however, he is a conspicuous 13-15. Unacceptable.
This was the healthiest Capitals’ club that’s ever competed in the NHL postseason. They competed hard — their coach last night found no fault with what his players left out on the ice. We are therefore left to conclude that the club was insufficiently constructed, beginning with uncertainty in net and exacerbated by disproportionate finesse at the expense of old time hockey throughout the roster. There should be no more talk of a Stanley Cup in this town before inferior opponents are impaled, bloodied, and battered in successive series in the postseason.
Something unsavory happened to Alexander Ovechkin at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. He returned from the games an altered hockey player, and not altered for the better. He put up points all right in March and April, but somewhat shockingly he lost both the Richard and Ross trophies, having skated a heavy favorite’s claim to them through the first two-thirds of the season. He earned two suspensions in 2009-10, and after the second one never seemed to regain his bad-ass ways. Alexander Ovechkin, captain of the Washington Capitals, needs to return to Washington in the fall his old bad-ass self, blasting bodies through the boards again and apologizing to no one for it. Canadian media will freshly pillory him for it. But how are they treating him right about now?
And it would greatly help Washington’s heavy hockey heart if in a few months’ time he was surrounded by a handful of new bad-asses.