When the Levee Breaks

Cup'pa JoeThirty minutes before game 7 I said to a circle of new media mates high up in Verizon Center that my gut was telling me that the dam may well burst, that so much of the preceding hockey in this series had been of the excruciatingly close variety, that simply the law of averages suggested that the series was due a lopsided and lousy lemon. You just don’t get seven consecutive classic games, no matter how evenly matched the teams. I didn’t have a sense as to which side would burst through the stalemate, just that a sort of mental fatigue combined perhaps with an unlucky break or three would settle in on one unfortunate side, they’d never recover, and we’d witness a drama-less conclusion to a city-transforming series.  

The better team won Wednesday night, and they were more than one-night-better in this series. They were upwards of 75 shots to the better better, dominant and tempo-dictating in their forecheck, disciplined, crisp with their passes and confident in their breakouts, and positively deserving of their title as defending conference champions. This series proved rather perfectly that the Penguins are a year ahead of the Capitals in competitiveness.

* * * * *
There is something more than disconcerting about the Capitals’ starts to games, dating back really all the way to the end of winter. During the first intermission Mike Vogel pointed out to me that way back when the Caps raced out to 18 wins in their first 20 home games this season, often they jumped out ahead of the competition early on, often drawing penalties and capitalizing on the power plays and skating proverbially downhill thereafter. Those fast starts rather suddenly stopped, and not long after, so did all the winning at home.

In the first periods of games 6 and 7, the Caps were outshot 34-10 by Pittsburgh. Those were elimination games of course, and in both instances the Caps were flat and unprepared to compete at puck-drop. Why? That question had better be addressed this offseason.

There was an NHL coach I believe whose name escapes me who recently suggested that once the Caps learn how to win they’ll be a most formidable foe. They haven’t and aren’t; Pittsburgh has and is. That I think was the principal difference Wednesday night and in this series.

This Capitals’ team finished one victory shy of the Eastern conference finals. That strikes me as being just about right relative to the projections for the club dating back to training camp, and with what we saw exposed at times in the regular season and especially in this series. This team I don’t think under- or over-achieved. The experience of this postseason most certainly will aid the team’s core in the postseasons of the future, but there are reasonably significant changes that must be made. Among them: addressing the unhealthy discrepancy in production on the right side up front, and adding some much needed “sandpaper” on the blueline.
   

* * * * *
No reasonable person would scapegoat Simeon Varlamov for the game 7 implosion. This was Varlamov’s very first season of professional hockey in North America. He was expected to need at least a full season’s seasoning in the American League before possibly earning mere backup minutes in D.C. Injuries in Hershey this season limited him to fewer than 30 starts — it wasn’t quite a washout campaign, but it wasn’t anywhere near what Capitals’ management hoped for in terms of experience. But then consider where he found himself in mid-April: merely trying to salvage the Capitals’ season, one suddenly threatening to end before it really got started. It’s astounding to think that Varlamov was one victory shy of leading the Caps into hockey’s final four.

“I do believe the Washington Capitals will win a Stanley Cup soon, and one of the reasons is Simeon Varlamov,” Comcast’s Joe Beninati said in the postgame last night. 

* * * * *
Given the thoroughly underwhelming showing in this series by Mike Green and Alexander Semin, it’s a wonder it even made it to seven games. Later this week we’ll learn of injuries for both, likely significant for each. They are impact players when reasonably healthy, and neither had an impact on this series. That’s not accidental.  

The player who most had an impact on the series was Sidney Crosby. I was one who tossed darts and daggers his way in his first three seasons in the league. I didn’t think he was much of a leader, and he struck me as being a second-tier goal-scoring threat. This spring, and especially in this series, he announced himself great in both respects. He has obliterated talk of being the “second-best Pen” or in any way unworthy of representing the NHL and all it should stand for. I was awestruck by his dominance down low. He really didn’t showcase much his brilliant passing — he was too busy scoring goals. The Caps would do well, beginning this summer, to address the conspicuous dearth of piss-n-vinegar brutes on the blueline who might dislodge Crosby from the comforts he enjoyed all around Varlamov’s crease the past two weeks.   

* * * * *
I consumed a great deal of media the past two weeks about this series and its stars, and the most memorable snippet for me stood out in a mere two lines of a USA Today essay on the two young greats:

“Ovechkin, who also earned $9 million but is signed through 2021, dyed his hair red for the playoffs and persuaded teammates Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom to do the same. He is seen around town driving a Mercedes with Capitals car flags on both sides.”

Alexander Ovechkin is so much more than just a dynamic hockey talent almost single-handedly ushering in an era of unfathomable prosperity for a franchise perhaps just 5 or so years removed from talk of being a relocation candidate. He is something we have never seen a Washington sports star be: he is an ambassador-fan for his franchise, a proud showcaser of its crest, even as he drives his car about the city. Meaning no disrespect to Joe Theismann or Wes Unseld or any other Washington sports legend, but do you recall any of them blinging their team affiliation with such infectious, endearing, fan-ish enthusiasm? 

Maybe way back in 2004 when in his very broken English Ovi first muttered something about making Washington a hockey town we all thought he was just talking the good-sounding talk. This offseason, however, while rudely and crudely foisted upon us, we know differently.

It will be some weeks still before Ovi heads home to Moscow, vacations a bit and then begins his grueling training regimen to better his career. During that time, if you happen to be standing at a D.C. street corner as Ovi passes, his red Caps’ flags fluttering wildly in the summer sun, wave and blow a kiss at this wunderkid, or honk your horn if you’re behind him and pump a fist out your window. He’s one of us, and aren’t we damned lucky for it.

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38 Responses to When the Levee Breaks

  1. Ted says:

    Mike Green was beat up. He’ll be fine. We could need some more D-Men like Murphy and Stevens and Hatcher in our team. These guys couldn’t hold their gloves. I think mites on ice could clear the zone better. 80’s D-Men with out current offense would have won this series.

  2. muddapucker says:

    Just a couple comments on the series with the Pens.
    The Caps, it seems to me, are at their best when the have an aggressive forecheck. That is what caused them to be 7-1 in elimination games going into last night’s game.
    There offense feeds off of defensive pressure when they are successful. It doesn’t work the other way around, particularly when the opposition is clogging mid ice between the bluelines to neutralize speed.
    At that point, its the opposition offense feeding off of their defense. Check out the number of Caps turnovers. We provided their offensive opportunities.
    That is what the Rags did to us, but in the end, we beat them at their own game. We didn’t do it against Pittburgh.
    Sid the Kid, is probably the best hockey player within 15 feet of the net that I have seen in a long time. He has an unbelievable set of hands and his hand/eye coordination is phenomenal.
    He lacks OV’s creativity, speed and shot.
    For sure, they are two different type players, but I gotta give Sidney his due.
    Malkin played about like Semin, neither had a perticularly good series.
    Sorry to see the series end like that, but quite frankly, the Caps were not playing playoff hockey. They are not going to win the Cup until they accept that defense precedes offense in the Cup.

  3. spinner33 says:

    give up some love for the caps! 🙂 i totally agree!

  4. Penguin Pete says:

    muddapucker,
    good points about the forecheck. i’ve said it elsewhere that neither of these teams have a defense that can handle alot of pressure. this is why the pens will have trouble should they get to the finals and face a detroit/anaheim (i know, alot of assumptions here).
    good point about malkin as well. i’d like to see him get shipped off for a jack johnson, a good, mean, stay at home dman. that’s what brings a decade of playoff success, chris pronger types, not guys who can score 80 goals.
    don’t agree that crosby isn’t as creative as ovechkin, he’s an amazing passer that you really didn’t see in this series. though some may be as fast as ovie, no one has a better shot, an almost unfair comparison.
    it was a great series and i hope the pens can continue to forge on, however, they’re built like the capitals, without a strong defense, and it will be tough. perhaps the matchups will fall into their favor….

  5. The Mule says:

    Until Leonsis and McPhee wise up and realize playoff hockey is a completely different animal the Caps may be in trouble.

  6. Jayguin says:

    So what happened they forget to show up for the game? Did they dress the junior varsity team or something?
    If Semin wants an answer to his question what is so great about Crosby maybe he can watch a replay of last night, that should answer him. And btw how many goals did Semin score? ya…maybe he should keep his mouth shut next time until he does something on the ice.
    And to wrap it up nothing was finer than seeing ovechkins head down on the bench, ya we did score 5 goals just like that…
    Well at least you got the Nationals…erm wait they are worse than the Pirates and the Pirates are embarrasing…
    Peace…Go PENS!

  7. Jeremy says:

    Good write-up Pucks. Thanks to all the OFBers for a great season of coverage. I found you guys about two years ago and have been coming back for more ever since.
    Much needed “sandpaper” defense indeed. Crosby not only camped out next to our crease, he set up a tent, built himself a campfire, and toasted some marshmallows. Something that has to be addressed.

  8. ICE says:

    Being a new fan to the sport this year, I am, grateful to the Caps for giving us an exciting year! As I bury my hopes for the season the passion still burns an looks forward to the 09/10 season.

  9. Jeremy says:

    Why does everyone assume Caps fans are also Nats fans, or even Redskins fans for that matter? It is not so.

  10. Dan says:

    With the score something like 5-1, my wife said to me, “you’re unusually calm…and it’s freaking me out. Last game, you couldn’t sit down during that penalty kill, and now you’re just calm.”
    My answer…I kind of had a feeling that this was coming. I knew the Caps were in for a really REALLY bad game. I was just hoping that it would come AFTER game 7…sometime against the Bruins or Canes.
    This team played at a back-to-the-wall, dials-turned-to-eleven (because it’s one higher than ten) level for pretty much all of the Rangers series…and most of the Pens series…coming back from 3-1 and 3-2. I mean you just can’t sustain that kind of mental and physical intensity for that long without a letdown.
    My biggest regret about all of this is the way that this series had brought the non hockey fans to the table. Many might have finally tuned in last night for Game 7, after hearing all the hype, and that’s what they saw. ANd they’ll be quick to dismiss it.
    It’s hard to be too down. You know that we’re going to get many, MANY more chances to take the Pens down in the coming years. Last night hurt…but did any of us expect to even get the series back to DC when it went to the Igloo 3-2?
    Can we get Comcast to play the Bears games for those of us who weren’t ready to shut down the season yet? 🙂

  11. Junior says:

    A well-written post mortem, IMHO. I agree with pretty much everything here, though I’ll quibble a bit about the role goaltending played; for what it’s worth, here’s the two cents of one of the Caps’ adopted fans (via Leaf Nation and the crew at Pension Plan Puppets).
    Classy move giving Crosby his props on a bitter morning after.

  12. Tyler says:

    Because it’s the same city, obviously. DC is a melting pot city of NY, Boston, and Pitt fans (some Philly fans, too) so that makes it damn near impossible to grind out a fanbase like the Caps have done these past two years. I’m not a Redskins fan because I’m not a football fan. I’m a Nats fan because they’re my hometown team now, but I grew up a Red Sox fan and still love the team, mostly for my mom’s sake!
    People who were born, growing up, and will die in western PA don’t really get this…

  13. DCPensFan says:

    Just wanted to offer a post-series hand shake. You guys are a tough out. I don’t think last night changes that.

  14. Jeremy says:

    Yea, I realize it’s a natural assumption. I’ve just noticed that when people take non sequitur shots at Caps fans, a common insult seems to be against the Redskins and Nats affiliation. Not all of us root for these teams and they have nothing to do with our hockey team.

  15. Mark says:

    I’ve been a fan for 30 years, and I think some context is needed here. Before this year, Ted said the team’s goal was to make the playoffs and win a round. Losing to the lowly Rangers would have made for a failed season. Losing in the second round in seven games to a 2008 Stanley Cup finalist is something else — progress.
    30 years ago, 20 years ago, 10 years ago, I couldn’t realistically envision the Capitals winning the Stanley Cup. Today I can. This team is only getting better, and within a few years, this same core group of young players will win a Cup. And knowing that will keep me going.

  16. Mark says:

    One last thought — @randallboe on Twitter last night put it best. “Caring about a team can really suck.”

  17. pucksandbooks says:

    Jeremy,
    Thank you for your kind words and your patronage. There are so many terrific forums to follow on line for our great sport, and when I learn from a reader that ours is a regular stop among them, well, it’s humbling but also energizing. And in point of fact, from my vantage, you are representative of the typical OFB responder in our forum: wise and savvy and passionate, and generous in taking the time to persuasively and lucidly offer your helpgul insights. I appreciated your razor-sharp synopsis of the surgery Sidney performed all too easily. He’s brilliant, but he needs to be put on his keester come next season!

  18. Mitch says:

    Grats on your season, here’s hoping to more epic playoff battles in the years to come. Go Pens.

  19. Juan-John says:

    Bravo Zulu to OFB for another splendid season of fan-puck coverage. May the Pens be blown out in four the next round. 🙂
    And btw, I’m a baseball and soccer fan AS WELL as being a hockey fan, but what got me to truly appreciate this incredible game wasn’t Ovie nor Green nor Varlamov nor Boudreau — it was this blog.

  20. Jeremy says:

    Thank you for your kind words as well, pucksandbooks. The reasons you mentioned are exactly why I come to this site. Even the Pens fans posting here are keeping it classy. I can barley stomach some of the commenters on other sites, and it’s enough to make me pass on scrolling through that drivel. Apparently I’m a glutton for punishment though, because I keep going back. But I digress. Keep up the good work.

  21. Caps fan in Savannah says:

    As a long-time (first game in 78′), oft-suffering Caps fan, I really enjoyed the season. Congrats to the Pens and Pens fans, they were the better team. The Caps just weren’t ready last night. Perhaps they were worn down, but as others have said, we’ve got something to build and I believe it was a positive season. Thanks for the blog, I enjoyed reading on an almost daily basis.

  22. Brentwood says:

    Classy move Pucks in admitting that you must eat your words about Crosby. As I wrote here in February, don’t get too excited about one regular season win in February. Playoff hockey is different. Crosby may be the most unappreciated star in sports because he is not flashy, does not have a cannon shot and interviews more like a football coach afraid of saying anything that will be hung on a bulletin board before the next game. To see Crosby for just a single game when the Pens come to town does nothing to give the casual fan a feeling that this guy is worth all of the hype. You have to watch him over a long series to appreciate him. He does all of the little things that you need to do to win games very well. In this series, he also showed that he can score goals if you need him to, though he is not a goal scorer per se. It is easy to watch Ovie play once and be overwhelmed by him. Crosby must be watched over a period of time to get his greatness. Great series Caps fans.

  23. LangwayWasTheKing says:

    Guys. Great Blog. As a 56 year old 2nd generation French Canadien/New Englander and a Caps fan since they came here, last night was awful primarily because of the prior years’ ghosts.
    I used to feel that I was destined to die a miserable death because of my dual affection for the Red Sox and Capitals, but then came 2004 and now Ovie.
    And Pens Fans: Do not come to VC and act like jerks, then get indignant when one of your drunken hoards takes one in the chops.
    In 1979 I believe I attended a Cowboys-Steelers Super Bowl rooting for the Cowboys to get crushed. About half way through the first half, because of the impossibly drunk/obnoxious Steeler fans, I switched sides. That’s part of the reason Caps fans hate the Pens & Flyers.
    When you lose, lick your wounds and move on. When you win be happy and classy. That’s all we ask.

  24. bugincranberry says:

    I’m a Pens fan.
    What a series! Caps fans, you should be proud of your team. They pushed the Pens to the wall and everyone in my household had their hearts in their throats over the first 6 games. THIS is what hockey is all about. New fans came into the hockey family over this series.
    Fantastic job Caps. The Pens will be wary of you over the coming seasons, no doubt, and Ovechkin is a show unto himself. Yes, Crosby planted himself within 15 feet of the goal and did the dirty work, but every time we watched Ovie skim down the ice, wheeling and dealing the puck, we held our breath and breathed a collective sigh of relief when his whistling blur-of-a-shot was stopped.
    We’re looking forward to much more with the Caps. Go Pens!

  25. zelda says:

    Nice summation, P&B. What a wonderful season it has been. Frankly, I was thrilled that they made it through the first playoffs. I looked at the second round as gravy. Crosby is good, but for my money, it’s a lot more fun to watch Ovi and to share in celebrating his goals. The future is bright! Also, hats off to our fans for sticking around last night and cheering for the boys to thank them for their season. By the way, seeing Ovi graciously work his way through the Pens’ line after the game underscores how great this kid is both on and off the ice.

  26. Ted says:

    The Caps will beat the Penguins in the playoffs before I die. I hope at least.

  27. badvibesdude says:

    Total class post. I wish all Caps fans could be like this.
    The Caps aren’t that far away from being a legitimate threat to win the Cup. You need a little more depth/glue on the 3d and 4th lines and more defense on the blueline.
    And drop the Crosby taunting. Don’t be as dumb as Philly fans. They still haven’t figured out that taunting Crosby just makes him more competitive. I’ve seen some Caps fans that know who Larry Murphy is, but most of the fans I see are newer fans. That’s fine, but the newer fans need to learn how to be classy. There’s nothing wrong with some booing here and there, a clever sign or whatever, but all the signs calling him a whiner and the props are just ridiculous. Considering how much whining the Caps have done this series, I think you guys have forfeited the right to call anyone a whiner.

  28. Bucky Katt says:

    Speaking of which….
    P&B- Cleanup in Aisle #6…Troll doo-doo alert.

  29. Letz_Go_Caps says:

    Hate to break this to you but the Pens are not just a year ahead of Capitals in competitiveness. They are vastly ahead of the Capitals in terms of competitiveness. The Caps have yet to grab control of a series. Make no mistake the victory over the Rangers was a fluke, they were outshot and outplayed.
    That’s the BIG problem, the Caps are consistently outshot and outplayed and wait until they face elimination to show up. There’s no heart on this team. The series was lost in game 3. Game 3 was the time to put forth your absolutely best effort. Instead the Caps played like garbage. I think they really let down a lot of lifelong fans such as myself when they failed to show up. It’s the scene in the horror film where the protagonist has the monster on the ground and seemingly dead and casually walks away instead of hacking it to pieces and burning the ashes.
    Note to Caps: STOP FLIRTING with the Pens in the playoffs. If you have them down two games treat the next game like an elimination game because it is. I’m getting too old for this crap.

  30. Pete Silver says:

    Can’t agree with you more regarding the comments/praise of Ovechkin as an ambassador/representative for the team, the city, and the league. It’s a very rare combination that few players, let alone great players, possess. The hardcore fans love him, it’s time for Washingtonians (hockey fans or not) to perk up and appreciate what they have.

  31. Muddapucker says:

    A lot has been said about our defensive corps and I agree that some improvements are needed, but I maintain that the problem didn’t lie entirely on the blueline.
    I take issue that the 3rd and 4th lines were solely to blame.
    I think that maybe the problem was as much a problem with our 1st and 2nd lines as well as the blueliners and the 3rd and 4th lines. In other words, it was a team failure on defense.
    Everyone has to be defensive accountable, especially in the playoffs… where were our shot blockers? Its not all about skill and finesse. Somebody has got to pay the price.
    If the truth be known, if it weren’t for Varlamov, the games would not have been as close as the were. He kept us in the rest of them, but the Pittsburgh chances were there in every game. His play kept us in them.
    You could actually see the difference in the defensive approach from when he started his first game vs. NYR when the team played a solid checking game and was defensively responsible to last night’s game. As the player’s confidence in Varlamov grew, the defensive effort eroded.
    We could have used a few Quinton Laing type efforts out there.

  32. Bucky Katt says:

    “We could have used a few Quinton Laing type efforts out there.”
    True dat.
    P&B- I heard that Ted gave quite an interview on 980 today. I haven’t been able to find it…but hopefully you guys will post it if you dig it out.

  33. MattsDad says:

    When Alexander Ovechkin had finished his slow progression through the congratulating hug & a handshake line with the OTHER team (including a longish colloquy with a less-than-normal and clearly still skeptical Sergei Gonchar), he circled back to his teammates. What remained of the Verizon crowd (and let’s not pretend half the house hadn’t vacated by this point, unable to stomach this truly nightmarish loss) started chanting M-V-P. AO, helmet off, vulnerable, willing to shoulder the blame but at the same time wanting to honor the fans he feeds off, lifted his stick in silent salute. One by one the entire team followed suit. The fans should have been shouting CAP-I-TAIN. Because this man, our Beowulf, in victory or defeat, is the leader of this group of men, clearly, and will be for years to come. And Grendel (Pittsburgh, let’s say), and Grendel’s Mother (OK, whatever, remains to be seen, Boston?), and the Dragon (fine, Detroit!), will all learn, in time, the price you pay for invading our mead hall, and crushing our bones, because this MAN will insist on it, collecting that bounty, recovering that treasure – and inflicting the necessary VENGEANCE along the way – and the Washington Capitals, after dominating next season for 82 games (how about 60-12-10?) and cleaning out the post-season pretenders (16-8, how about that?) will prevail in the end, and bring home the ancient cauldron once and for all, for all to drink from, and for our smiling coach to drive around with in his oversize cupholder for all to behold: Stanley’s Cup (as my wife, God bless her, likes to say) – here it is Washington, it’s yours, now and for aye. If you don’t love this team, I pity you. You don’t know what love is.

  34. CapsFan1975 says:

    Varlamov certainly played more games more frequently in the playoffs than during the regular season. We weren’t concerned with his talent but were concerned about how he could handle back to back games.
    On the injury front, a few hints are dropping. The news is that Poti was playing with a broken foot. Green had reinjured the shoulder he had injured in Anaheim (against Chris Pronger). While the specific injury to Semin hasn’t been disclosed, he is definitely injured and if he were during the regular season, he would be sidelined. I’m heard varying reports, from slashed hand, to broken hand, and even a broken foot. This blog had also revealed his slashed up face in Game 1, courtesy of Orpik. Semin had missed several morning skates and, while he was denying injury, in reality he was injured. As injured and subpar as Semin was, he did contribute 5 assists, which contributed to two of our victories.

  35. Grooven says:

    The Capitals were due a game like last night’s. I had hoped it wouldn’t come yet, but I wasn’t that surprised. The game sucked, sure, but it was less painful than a loss in the fourth overtime, that’s for sure. And I’ve definitely sat through worse appearances.
    My opinion on the series and on the season do not coincide. The Capitals did not play great hockey during the series overall, but I could not tell just how badly or how well they played due to poor officiating. A trip is a trip, regardless of which team commits it. And basics like an offside call were missed more than once (in both directions).
    I do think that the Penguins are a better team at this point. Somewhere between the multiple high draft picks and being ahead of the Caps in the rebuild, it only makes sense.
    But, the Capitals’ last full game of hockey was probably in January (Detroit maybe?). Yes, they kept winning games, but that only masked the deficiencies and bad habits they were letting creep into their games. It wasn’t until the losing streak in March kicked in that many even noticed.
    If the Capitals played like we all know they can, the series might have resulted differently. That’s the frustrating part. Losing happens. It’s a matter of how that losing happens that makes the difference between a good team and a great one. The Capitals are not great. Not yet. Hopefully soon.

  36. Doug says:

    Umm, did you watch the same series as everyone else? The Caps had a huge shot advantage over the Rangers. Lundqvist and some timely goals were all that kept NY in that series. The Pens were a different story, but I think the team showed tremendous heart in coming back from deficits in both series. The team has issues for sure (like how a team with so much skill has so much trouble getting out of its own zone, a problem that surfaced even in the regular season and I think was the real key to the Pittsburgh series), but they’re young and I like to think Bruce Boudreau can push them to the next level.
    This was the most fun I’ve had watching a Caps team in my lifetime, even more than 97-98 (Not sure when I attended my first game, I’ll just guess 1992). Of course, it had to happen after I moved out of the DC area. Here’s hoping the NHL doesn’t jack up the price of Center Ice next season, and that I can make it back east for at least one game at the Phone Booth. And thanks to everyone at OFB for helping me keep up with the day-to-day happenings.

  37. Hockeymom says:

    Quote: “…if you happen to be standing at a D.C. street corner as Ovi passes, his red Caps’ flags fluttering wildly in the summer sun, wave and blow a kiss at this wunderkid, or honk your horn if you’re behind him and pump a fist out your window. He’s one of us, and aren’t we damned lucky for it.”
    ========================
    I so love this!! Thanks Ovie, thanks Caps! Get better boys and we’ll see you next season!

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