24 April, 2014


Pride, Regret, and Questions

If we are of mixed emotions about the end of this hockey season — proud and uplifted by a Capitals team of unlikely cohesion and stunning sacrifice, but also exasperated by the frustration of banishment earlier than forecast, again — that’s as it should be. This Capitals team engineered a vibrant unity of our region in short order, gelling dramatically under their coach and playing precisely the brand of hockey the NHL postseason prescribes. On a near nightly basis they managed to create riveting drama, and a region none too accustomed to that, with the stakes high, fell in love with it.

This wasn’t just about a hockey team getting it together at the right time, playing for one another bravely and selflessly. This seemed fresh and authentic, a stirring streak of success in short order, taking down the defending champs and pushing the East’s no. 1 seed to the brink. Along the way a long elusive identity was forged, cultivated in work ethic, commitment, and fearlessness. It seemed something to build upon, durably.

And then there was Braden Holtby. He seemed part Cam Ward (’06), part Ken Dryden ( ’71), part his very own self. He thrilled us by staring down contemporary netminding giants. He thrilled us with his precocious resiliency. He thrilled us with his swagger. He staked a serious claim to being the franchise netminder the Capitals have searched for since Olie Kolzig departed.

And then there was Dale Hunter, the Legend returned in-season merely to play the role of Savior. Harshly, rashly judged in his early going here, this morning he appears indispensable to a Capitals organization going forward.

But the Capitals this spring also reminded us of . . . the Capitals — uniquely qualified to steal defeat from the jaws of victory.

Little things, very, very little things, often decide a playoff series between evenly matched teams. And so a Capitals team with series-stealing visions immediately before it with mere seconds remaining in game 5 saw beautiful bliss swiftly replaced by irrevocable brutality as Joel Ward’s hockey stick reversed the course of prosperity. My verdict on the infraction, aided by almost 40 years of suffering with this franchise, was that it was unforgivable. At 11:00 Saturday evening I was of little better charity of spirit. An organization congenitally, and ever, on the outside looking in on prosperity cannot so shoot itself in the skate boot, not against an elite team.

If a month ago you had been told that the Caps could navigate the Bruins and the Rangers and be left standing in hockey’s final four with merely the Devils (6 seed), Coyotes (nominal 3 seed), and Kings (8 seed), how would you have reacted?

Again, be proud of the special sacrifice and extraordinary effort exhibited by this edition of the Capitals, but acknowledge, too, what ultimately was lost in those final infuriating 60 seconds within Madison Square Garden during last Monday night’s game 5. There never should have been a game 7.

We could follow this team another 15 or 20 years and not see such a Red Sea of Prosperity — the round 1 falling of the Wings, the Pens, the defending champions, among other high-powered others — rival this spring’s. As a lifer following this club, I look at this spring’s vanquishing and know it will stick with me with savage sourness, until — if — redemption at last arrives.

And so this morning we are left with scores of questions casting our gaze forward.

  • With the existing CBA set to expire, will there even be hockey next season?
  • Can we at last secure a second-line center? And what do you do with Alexander Semin?
  • Is it really to be the case that the world’s best hockey player not yet in the NHL, Evgeny Kuznetsov, won’t see a Capitals sweater for at least two more hockey seasons?
  • Whither Ovi? Brilliant in game 6, when his team needed him terribly, Captain Alexander Ovechkin was the inverse of efficiency and impact in game 7. Never before had I seen him compete in a big game with less interest in having the puck on his stick. Blind drop pass after blind drop pass, instant and casual puck distribution long before drawing Rangers defenders to him, Ovi genuinely didn’t seem to want the puck on his stick Saturday night. I find that gravely troubling.
  • Hunter, here or back there? If he goes, who in the hell replaces him?
  • Missing in Action: Marcus Johansson. MJ90 was useless in the Rangers series, and only marginally better against the Bs. I ask anew: Just why didn’t the Capitals develop him as they have all of their other non-lottery selected talents? I genuinely worry that in rushing him into the NHL as they did the Caps have stunted his development.
  • Leadership — it’s coming from everywhere but where it’s formally expected to. Is this an area to be addressed by management in the offseason, or will we again sacrifice this sport’s time-honored heritage with its captaincy in a promulgation of an ill-advised marketing campaign?
  • The Capitals aren’t playing 82 games next regular season as they did this April and May. There aren’t enough trainer’s tables and hospital wards in the region to accommodate it. So assuming Hunter’s back, what system will the coach deploy to build on the great evolution he engineered for this organization?
  • And most interestingly: Just how much more like Dale Hunter will the 2012-13 Capitals roster look?


26 Comments

  1. EnzoBigBlue wrote:

    Rangers flat out outplayed us in game 7 and we played like we did in game one of the series. Flat and not ready for the occasion. Hard to say this season is a success. Positives for me were the team play and shot blocking. Leading the lead in shot blocks shows our team development and strength of our character guys. Another positive is you saw the rise of the character guys to the fans. Hendy aka Wagon, Holtbeast, Knuble, Browser, and MVP(s) Beagle and Chimera. These guys took the spotlight from the underachieving stars. The reason I am not optimistic about this team is the decline of Ovi, MJ90 (failed #2 center) and the razor’s edge of the team’s playoffs and regular season success shows that you are one bounce away from from failure. We were the weaker team vs. boston and won and we were the better team vs. the rangers and lost. That is too slim a margin to make it 16 games and hoist the cup. Even wonder why we were not able to come from behind and win a game in this series??

    14 May, 2012 at 9:04 am | Permalink
  2. Todd wrote:

    Aye, that’s the question isn’t it? There’s no way they can play 82 games in this style.

    What I’m hoping to see is, if Hunter comes back, he changes it a bit in that now that everyone knows how he wants them to play defense, he pushes the offense to be more aggressive.

    More two man forechecks with a third man high. Push the action, instead of just reacting. And pick your times when to block shots.

    But I’m not counting on seeing the NHL again until 2013.

    14 May, 2012 at 9:06 am | Permalink
  3. CurtMcCormick wrote:

    This one is especially bitter for me. Unlike in the past, IT WAS RIGHT THERE for us – we had all we needed to do this. No hockey next year too; that has been in the back of my mind for a few weeks now. I do think, however, that WHEN we do win the Cup, all will be forgiven. But I’m not getting any younger, you know?

    14 May, 2012 at 9:12 am | Permalink
  4. Greg Henesy wrote:

    Great article. You hit all the key points. I’ll also add, when has Ovechkin, or any of the young guns, made a difference in a game 7? They’ve all come up small. How do you fix that?
    As far as the system being sustainable, all you have to do is look at the Rangers. They had the buy in from day 1 this year with a similar system. Their record speaks for itself.
    Lastly, most Caps fans have way overrated the talent on this team. Ovie has slipped and shows very little signs of wanting to play up to his contract. Outside of Backstrom, who I think is our best player right now, we don’t have great talent. The talent we had lost interest or is in Florida.

    14 May, 2012 at 10:16 am | Permalink
  5. Justin wrote:

    I still agree with your Game 5 sentiments. In my opinion, the Ward apologists were the victims of flawed logic when they spewed their vitriol at you in the comments section of that post. They pointed to the missed opportunities on odd-man rushes, the pucks hitting posts and crossbar, the faceoff losses, etc. And of course, the “you win as a team, and you lose as a team” mantra. What is key to remember is that all of these instances led to us failing to secure a two-goal lead, they did NOT lead to the Rangers scoring the tying and winning goals. Ward’s action DID. If Metta World Peace commits a technical foul with the Lakers up one with a couple of seconds left and the opposing player hits both to lead his team to victory, can you fault Kobe for missing a wide-open look earlier in the game as a cause for the loss? No, that meant that the score was closer than it could have been, but the team had done enough to have a lead in the dying seconds of a game. It’s a harsh reality (and I like Ward), but it’s entirely possible that a singular event of stupidity can alter a game’s outcome, regardless of what your teammates may or may not have done in the previous 59.5 minutes. When your team’s system dictates that every game come down to the infamous “coin-flip,” then mistakes like that are going to be the difference in games. And whether people want to believe it or not, it made a difference in this series. Another season of “what ifs” and “what coulda been.” Damn.

    14 May, 2012 at 10:19 am | Permalink
  6. morgan wrote:

    When all’s said and done, the Rnagers’ overpriced stars performed, ours didn’t. It will be interesting to see what happens in the off-season but, given past history, I’m not optimistic–probable a couple of three or four year $3 million plus per year contracts for more aged over-the-hill players (no second line center). Hope I’m wrong but I wouldn’t bet the farm on it.

    14 May, 2012 at 10:51 am | Permalink
  7. Rob wrote:

    How come there is no talk of how awful the Schultz / Wideman defensive pairing was throughout the playoffs. Defense wins playoff games and they are both pathetically inadequate. I believe they were in the neighborhood of -8 each in the playoffs. Simply dreadful. The Caps needed a shutdown defenseman in there (Erskine) and not glorified wingers like Wideman.

    14 May, 2012 at 11:20 am | Permalink
  8. Loki wrote:

    And now no coach…

    14 May, 2012 at 12:26 pm | Permalink
  9. Geo wrote:

    >>>>>Hunter, here or back there? If he goes, who in the hell replaces him?

    Time to cue that question, since Dale’s heading back to Ontario. :(

    I have no idea what GMGM’s going to do, but I figure the choices are:
    -Put a mountain of money in front of some old warhorse (Keenan, Bowman, etc.) and hope they can get the Caps over the playff hump.
    -Promote from within (Dean Evason has been talked about as a candidate for other head coaching jobs in the past)
    -Hire some up-and-coming AHL coach (not necessarily limited to French in Hershey).
    -Or, just about anything. Really there’s no rhyme or reason on coaches who’ve lead teams to the Cup. Some have been ones with zero NHL experience, some had decades, some in between.

    I would think though, GMGM probably liked the idea of a coach with extensive NHL playing experience (Hunter), so maybe he’ll be looking for someone with that qualification.

    14 May, 2012 at 12:50 pm | Permalink
  10. Sean wrote:

    It’s okay, GMGM will make a brillant move and hire someone to pick up where DH left of to lead the team yet again into the playoffs and drive the caps with lightning speed straight into that Lead and Steel reinforced Concrete Wall that we call “the second round of the NHL playoffs.”

    14 May, 2012 at 12:51 pm | Permalink
  11. I think Jim Johnson at least has to be interviewed. He helped make Schultz look competent. Maybe he should be Pope.

    14 May, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Permalink
  12. Rob wrote:

    Pucks and Books, are you serious about Schultz? Sorry to say this but you don’t really have a sense of hockey. SCHULTZ WAS TERRIBLE. Same as he has been throughout the season and will be until he leaves. While he is big, he is afraid to go into the corners and take out the opponent, he certainly cannot clear people from the crease; and he lacks the ability to put the puck to the forwards…he is an utter disaster. BTW, Wideman should play wing somewhere, he is no D-Man…just ask the Bruins.

    14 May, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Permalink
  13. Geo wrote:

    Gmgm’s coach hiring track record is:
    -Ron Wilson (4 years NHL head coach exp)
    -Bruce Cassidy (a few years NHL assistant exp)
    -Glen Hanlon (minor league coach)
    -Bruce Boudreau (minor league coach)
    -Dale Hunter (junior hockey coach)

    See a trend? :) While I realize hiring someone with extensive NHL head coaching experience guarantees nothing (people thought Ken Hitchcock was a genius this year but guess what? St. Louis lost in the 2nd round too), personally I think it’s time he tried interviewing someone with some NHL head coaching experience for a change.

    14 May, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Permalink
  14. Geo wrote:

    Oops, I got it backwards; Cassidy was a minor league coach; and Hanlon had a few years NHL assistant experience. Sorry!

    14 May, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Permalink
  15. joyfulleigh18 wrote:

    Does Hunter’s resignation open up the possibility of getting a new GM in here next season after all? I felt like GMGM’s future rested on Hunter’s success this season, and that making it to game 7 in the second round was probably good enough. But if we’re going to have to find a new coach anyway, maybe it opens the discussion back up. Just wondering your thoughts.

    14 May, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Permalink
  16. My *commendation* such as it was for Sarge was offered very much in a relative sense. Did he make plays? Absolutely not. Dish out punishing checks in the corners or along the boards? Of course not. Spring forwards with nifty breakout passes, or deliver well-directed blasts from the point. Nada. But recall that he was a healthy scratch for a large swath of the Hunter/JJ tenure in the regular season. I thought he was horrific against the Bs and a largely innocuous minutes-eater against the Blueshirts. Doesn’t mean I don’t want to take his contract to the shredder. But he made strides this spring. Problem is, his overall game is so limited he really had nowhere to go but up.

    14 May, 2012 at 3:48 pm | Permalink
  17. SKINSCAPSTERPS wrote:

    Changes to make:

    Based on what he’s said this postseason, give Alzner the “C”, at least an “A”.

    End the Mike Green experiment now. GMGM might have to go for this to happen.

    As for coaches, I have no idea

    14 May, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Permalink
  18. Really? wrote:

    Couple of thoughts – McPhee must go. Now! And heres why… Am I the only person who heard the thousands of quotes over the past few years from Hunter stating that he NEVER wanted to coach in the NHL? He didn’t want the job and he even stated after taking the job that he essentially felt pressure from the Caps to do it. Bottom line is that McPhee pressured Hunter into taking the job because McPhee panicked and fired Boudreau & Woods without any plan whatsoever for succession. Yet another MAJOR failure by McPhail. Hunter was never going to be more than a rent-a-coach and EVERYONE who was paying any attention knew that all along!

    Secondly – why does it not surprise me that Caps “fans” are blaming Ovechkin & Semin for the playoff failure? These so-called “fans” are an embarrassment to the whole Washington DC area! The team’s superstars bought into Hunter’s system wholeheartedly. That system put a major leash on their offensive freedom. Also, on most nights, the Caps 4th liners got more ice time than the 1st liners. Why is no one asking why that 4th line didn’t put out more on offense? Someone has to score and someone on the ice that much HAS to do more!

    Hunter’s system was a failure. You can’t deny that! The Caps were UNABLE to score and that is the downside of Hunter’s system. They had to win every game 1-0 and simply weren’t capable of doing so. That is the systems fault, not the players…and especially not Ovi and Semin!

    I warned you all over a week ago that the Caps weren’t capable of winning this series. Your fault for not paying attention.

    Hunter leaves the Caps with a 7-7 playoff record. Only three other times in the playoffs did the Caps lose 7 or more games…1990 (went to EC Finals), 1996 (went to Stanley Cup finals) and 2010 (beat Rangers in 7, lost to eventual SC Champs Pens in 7). But that is a .500 record for Hunter. But, keep telling yourself this postseason was good for the Caps. You’re only kidding yourself!

    14 May, 2012 at 4:40 pm | Permalink
  19. berry wrote:

    Well,on a different note, this means more of listening to Tortorella. He only really talks if his team is winning and bitches at the reporters or doesn’t talk when his team is losing, it is getting rather old. @REALLY, I agree with you on it not being the fault of Semin and Ovi. Just wondering what or who the Caps need to have on the team to make it past the 2nd round

    14 May, 2012 at 5:47 pm | Permalink
  20. Really? wrote:

    @Berry – I honestly think the Caps were closer under Boudreau’s system then Hunter’s. Why? Because that’s how the team was built. If anyone remembers – most “fans” weren’t around back then – Hanlon was fired because of his defensive, trapping system but that’s exactly what Hunter did and got praised with similar results. Makes no sense!

    What the Caps need is a versatile defense corps. A set of solid defensive defenseman, a set of solid two-way defenseman and a set of puck-rushing defenseman. Balance the corps. Under Boudreau the D was all offense and failed as a result. Under Hunter, defenseman like Green and others were simply unable to play competent in the defensive zone on a consistent basis. Look at the important goals in the Rangers series (momentum changing and game winning)…who was on the ice? The same 2 defensemen (Carlson & Alzner) mostly. Green occasionally. That’s not good!

    I’m not saying dump all 3 of those but at least one of them needs to go…and possibly 2, depending on the system the new coach will run.

    And as others have said, a solid #2 center would be huge. Another versatile, two-way player. Rumors have Pitt looking to move Staal. That would be ideal for the Caps!

    14 May, 2012 at 6:07 pm | Permalink
  21. HBH WC wrote:

    @Really?
    You are correct about how the team was built and I’ve felt this same way all along. I’ve said in previous posts that there was a reason Hanlon had problems winning games and now for some reason, it is felt the team needs to start playing that style again in order to win. If that is what they feel is need, time to blow it all up and start all over. You don’t plow the fields with thoroughbreds.

    14 May, 2012 at 7:45 pm | Permalink
  22. Really? wrote:

    @HBH_WC Great analogy! The problem is right now for the Caps there is no identity. McPhee has bastardized the team to the point where it’s a mix of players that don’t mesh. A lot of the recent signings have been basically one-dimensional players or guys too old to change to help the team. They Caps best bet late this season would have been to run a hybrid system to try to match the abilities of most players. That type of system would require a lot of real coaching…line matching (matching skill with-in your team’s lines and getting good match-ups against the other team’s lines). It basically requires micro-management of every shift of every game. But, it works. Look at what the Devils are doing. They have high-skilled players mixed with workhorses and play a hybrid system that NBC likes to call “layering”…it’s basically the equivalent of a full-court press in basketball. A very demanding system but it’s so hard to beat! But the benefits allow your offensive guys to do their thing while also getting defensive responsibility from everyone.

    Bottom-line is that the Caps need a strong willed coach who basically acts as the GM, naming who he wants to get uN free agency or the draft and build a team totally his way.

    Get rid of McPhee or he needs to swallow his pride and work WITH the coach to design a team. Simple formula!

    14 May, 2012 at 8:33 pm | Permalink
  23. DOC wrote:

    Well another year of Failure!!!! Caps Fans will never see the Stanley Cup.

    Hey Pucks over here in Europe. Just checked in to see how your Team was doing another year and No Cup !!!!

    Lets face it Caps have no Leader Ovie is Over. Hunter as Coach was a joke from the beginning. The goaltender was the reason the Caps made it as far as they did.

    Now for our Northern Maine friends I believe they will now realize that the Caps SUCK!!!

    Glad to see that the outcome was a dream to them !!!

    Get rid of the Russian leader:

    15 May, 2012 at 12:50 pm | Permalink
  24. @ DOC, no need to be a dick about it.

    Regarding a second-line center, lots of noise from Chicago that they might trade him… he could be the 2nd-line guy the Caps need. Plus he can party with Ovi. ;-)

    15 May, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Permalink
  25. gs12 wrote:

    Excellent article, well balanced and spot on. I see the Caps as anything else, your perspective. If your an optimist, you think they are jelling as a team and Holtby is their backbone. That they now know what it takes, and will upgrade enough in personnel at Center/D. That they will be well positioned to do real damage in the playoffs for years to come.

    OR,

    Pessimism – another soul-crushing loss, just when it seemed like they were a bit destined this year. Further jaded by thier in ability to get past 2nd round, or seriously challenge for a cup. Ovie, well…he’s not the game changer/force we maybe thought he was in the playoffs.

    I’m an optimist – go caps!

    18 May, 2012 at 5:46 pm | Permalink
  26. VanZabDan wrote:

    Just watched talentless Ovi and Semin team up with Datsyuk and dominate the gold medal game. Semin named player of the game. Before you criticize the talent level of their opponent, they played against Chara most of the time. Obviously Datsyuk isn’t leaving Detroit but it does give you a glimpse of what a second top center might mean for this team.

    20 May, 2012 at 11:12 pm | Permalink