Where’s the Reward?

We are staring square at the very real possibility of the Eastern conference champion being decided between the 7 and 8 seeds this postseason. Such a development would add fresh fuel to the charge that the NHL’s regular season is altogether meaningless. Interestingly, the Capitals’ Mike Green intimated as much when he met with media at Kettler Capitals last week. We have 82 games to get through [next season] before we get another shot [at redemption], the rearguard noted.

Just what was the Capitals’ reward for their 54-win, 121-pt., President’s trophy performance this past regular season? A single extra home game in a best of seven series. Nothing else. In the NFL and Major League Baseball, true excellence is acknowledged in the postseason with a bye for the elite achievers. I’m not suggesting that the NHL necessarily follow this example — there’s something sacrificially sacred about four rounds and 16 wins required to lift Lord Stanley’s Cup — but clearly a postseason such as this one invites fresh scrutiny about hockey’s whole season, and specifically how its elite teams are acknowledged.

More so than with any offseason I can ever recall, this one in Washington strikes me as offering a remarkable challenge to the Caps as they market next season to Washington’s sports fans. The seats in Verizon Center next season will be filled, to be sure, but how do the Caps contest the well-grounded perception that next October through March is little more than 80-odd exhibition games? They just won the Southeast division for the third consecutive season, but this time by nearly 40 points. Beginning next October, won’t everyone who talks about the Caps in this town wonder the same thing: is this club better assembled for spring?

Then, they might well wonder: even if they are a better club, it doesn’t much matter if they run into another hot goalie. The proverbial hot goalie in spring is both the billboard and bane of our sport. I’m not suggesting that that change. Rather, I wonder if excellence October through mid-April is appropriately acknowledged.

In the case of Montreal’s consecutive upsets of the Caps and Pens, hats off to the Habs for buying in to Jacques Martin’s team-first, aesthetics third system of trapping and getting it done. At this time of year, after all, it is all about winning. But as I watched the Bell Centre throng celebrate madly each and every Habs’ score in game 7 — and good on Versus for offering viewers the stark contrast between Bell Centre and the macabre mass of mullets at Mellon Arena one final time — I couldn’t help but wonder: what would Jean Beliveau have said about the trap? The brothers Richard? The Flower?

The Habs resorted to a trap this postseason because they were overmatched in skill in both rounds. That’s not a subject the mob on St. Catherine’s Street much cares to discuss this spring. Mike Cammalleri and Brian Gionta and Tomas Plekanec are terrific hockey players. But they are not elite performers in our sport. They aren’t going to particularly thrill the suits at NBC with their arrival on hockey’s grand stage later this month. They are having superb postseasons — along with Jaroslav Halak they’re huge reasons why the Habs will be favored I think to advance to the Stanley Cup finals. And the league and its fans can celebrate their underdog insurgence this postseason; I’d be the first the tip my cap at Martin’s skaters battling through a litany of injuries and buying wholly into the new system he’s installed this spring. The Habs’ success this postseason is a testament to the discipline and commitment Martin’s skaters have nightly showed. But again I ask: ultimately, is this the product the league wants as advertisement for its game?

Does the league want more teams assembled and managed like the Caps? Ostensibly you would think so. More Caps, less Devils, right? But what’s their reward?

To take this back to the postseason — should a no. 1 seed enjoy the last line change in every game through the conference finals? Should it have five home games instead of four? Should it have veto authority over certain referees? Should it not enjoy a status greater than what it is presently offered by the league? I certainly think so. I’d be curious to know your thoughts.

This entry was posted in Montreal Canadiens, Morning cup-a-joe, National Hockey League, NHL playoffs, Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals. Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Where’s the Reward?

  1. bucknelldad says:

    Great questions. The one thing that strikes me about the sport of hockey at all levels is that the season, including the playoffs, is just too long. An 82 game regular season is fine, but the playoffs, with nearly a third as many games as the regular season, is outrageously long. It will greatly to cut in half the number of playoff teams — the division winners in each conference and a wild card, not unlike football and baseball, which will eliminate one round and introduce some sanity to the schedule. I would also go one step further and go to a best of five series for the first round, and maybe even the conference finals, saving the best of seven format for The Cup. Of course, that systemw would have eliminated Habs, the Flyers and even the Bruins from playoff contention, and that may seem unfair, along the revenue considerations that obviously go with it. But it would bring balance and a mercifully shorter playoff season.

  2. Angie says:

    First and foremost as a person that loves the sport of hockey and the Capitals, they don’t have to worry about me feeling that “next October through March is little more than 80-odd exhibition games”. I know far to many people that only watch post season hockey and I truly believe that happens because they don’t love the sport itself. I do and I thoroughly enjoyed each and every Capitals game I attended (which btw was 80 or so)and will do so again passionately.

    As for what teams that finish highly seeded should get as acknowledgment for their achievements, your question is well deserved. A meager banner to hang in your barn hardly seems due respect for what these teams accomplish. I suspect that as long as the current ‘head’ of the NHL is bobbling around, this as well as inconsistency in call making, the handing down of suspensions and failing clubs in the sun belt will continue to be issues that are overlooked.

  3. Chubbs says:

    Wahington’s reward for finishing first overall was to play the lowest ranked playoff team in the conference. It was up to them to take advantage of that.

    Even if the Caps did storm back to win Game Two, Halak had little to do with Montreal taking a 4-0 lead. It was shoddy team defense from Washington’s ‘elite’… The Caps playing too loose against an ‘inferior’ opponent. Like it or not, that flawed mentality and the overwhelming disregard for the defensive zone carried over into the rest of the series.

    Green was soft for seven games. Ovechkin was not Ovechkin when he needed to be. Theodore let in some bad goals early on, a cardinal sin in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

    As for the defensive structure to Montreal’s system, I doubt we would be having this conversation if Washington had advanced on account of strong team defense and opportunistic offense, instead of their offense at all costs/defensive zone be damned style of play.

    And I really don’t think you can compare New Jersey’s system from the 90s to Montreal’s in 2010. The Devils alone are responsible for the Dead Puck Era, sapping from the game every ounce of its entertainment value. If you watch the Habs play from purely the hockey fan perspective (as opposed to the disgruntled Caps’ fan perspective), you will see some of the most entertaining hockey that has been played in these playoffs.

    Nothing wrong with a little attention to detail to help you win games.

  4. TG says:

    Call the game like they said they would following the lockout. Where are the obstruction calls? The holding the stick calls? The interference calls?

    You want to get rid of the trap? Call the game the way the rulebook says.

    Guess the lockout was worth it, huh? (And considering it’s a copycat league, be prepared for a lot more trap next season.)

  5. Season ticket holder says:

    How does one get a bye in Major League Baseball?

  6. Brian says:

    CHUBBS brought up part of a point that I was going to make. The playoff matchups in the NHL are different. There is no set bracket to follow all the way to the end. At the end of each round the teams are shuffled again so that the lowest seated team remaining will play the highest seated team remaining. That should be a big advantage to the teams that finish at the top of the regular season.

  7. @SEASON TICKET HOLDER: Via an error? 😉 We’ll correct the post.

  8. Just because we squandered the benefits of having home ice advantage throughout the playoffs by loosing in the first round as did New Jersey and Buffalo squandered their home ice advantages in that same first round and Pittsburgh did in the second round, doesn’t mean the regular season is irrelevant. Further Green didn’t say say the regular season was meaningless, he said it would now take 82 games to get back to where the Caps were at the start of this post season – in a position to make a 4 round run through the post season and redeem themselves from squandering what until they ran into Montreal was a storeybook season…..

    Just an opposing view to consider…

  9. GnarlyVarly says:

    I honestly don’t know if we can call ourselves the best team in hockey unless we can look opponents in the eye and say “Do as you will, we will beat in any system you choose to implement.” We simply cannot look at teams and say “We’re the best, remember? That means you have to play our way because we said so. Trapping isn’t fair, bad officiating doesn’t count.”

    So a team decides to trap. There is a way to beat the trap. A team decides to run and gun with the other. There is a way to beat the run and gun. I think of football– if a team decides to blitz, you start throwing quick short passes. They load the line against the run, you *make* them stretch out because of your passing game. They have great pass defense? Run them into the ground.

    Ultimately, all sports come down to the team that excels in one or two areas and is still able to adapt will win. If we can’t adapt over the course of seven games, we are not the best. We cannot be elite in one facet and beg other teams to bow down before us.

    In this way of thinking– Montreal *was* better than us and deserved to win. They approached the playoffs as they should be approached in my opinion. They took an honest assessment of us, and an honest assessment of their own team and said “We need to completely change our system to beat them. Everyone on board? Yes? Ok, here’s how we do it.” and they implemented almost down to the man and succeeded.

  10. BTW I also disagree look at Mike Cammalleri’s numbers this post season – #3 in Single Post Season Scoring all time for a team with the most Stanley Cups ever and I think you could make a pretty solid argument he is in the leagues elite. Further, look at what Hal Gill did to Ovechkin last year and both Ovechkin and Crosby this year and you could argue that post season he is part of the league’s elite. That Gionta notched his game up for Game 7 against the Pens and at least for that night was a prsence and part of the legue’s elite is also not hard to argue…. We lost the Habs won – get over it, adjust and move on, that’s the only way we are ever seeing the Stanley Cup ride in an the back of a cool looking convertable Red Lincoln in a Parade down F Street here in DC….

  11. cdk says:

    I’d like to step back for a moment: the caps are not cursed: certainly not blessed but not cursed. it seems to me that ted and gmgm should at the least discuss w/ the league reassigning the caps to another division w/in the east or to have more conference and less division play. my thinking is that the s.e. is weak and the caps are feasting on teams that do not provide as much of a challenge as the sabres/devils/flyers/pens/etc. perhaps had the caps been tested more by playing more competitive teams the post season would have had a different outcome.
    would like the readers’ thoughts on this.
    the fact of the matter is that the fans would still prefer to see the pens/flyers/rangers/sabres/bruins/habs/ than tampa bay; atlanta or carolina.

  12. Mike says:

    I share everyone’s frustration, but to me this post hints at entitlement; that we deserve seomthing more. As another commenter pointed out, our reward was home ice through the playoffs, and a guaranteed lowest remaining seed opponent.

    At that point, you make your own rewards, which is exactly what Montreal has done twice. Like anything else in sports or life, nothing is guaranteed.

    So yes, nothing will be proven until next spring. But that doesn’t mean the games are meaningless. There were a lot of great storylines, and it was great to see several players come into their own. But more importantly, we should be looking for signs that the Caps have learned something from all this, just as they learned how to battle back from big deficits this year.

  13. Danevil says:

    The caps won the presidents cup…. its fancy no?oh and they get to chose last in the draft 🙂 there is a reason why they say the playoffs are a whole new season… cause this is what it all comes down to… 2 50 million dollar teams going all out to win 4… as for no elite … count stanley cup rings and world titles??? i believe ovi is the one missing out… and for the defensive system well martin has been playing this alot now he found a team who has bought into his system… more so they treat it as there religion… hockey is a team sport and the best TEAM won and stanley will return home for a 25th time !!!!!!!

  14. trekonor says:

    If the Habs are running the same trap as the Devils in the 90s, it is a very weak edition. I just don’t see the Habs running the same trap as the Devils and the whining about the Habs’ defensive hockey seems to me to be a lame excuse for the Caps’ downfall. The Caps and the Pens both controlled time of possession and outchanced the Habs. The Habs simply played great defense in their own zone beginning with their forwards – that’s quite different than relying on the trap. Then they had great production from their forwards – forwards who are great, who produce in crunch time and have their names on the Cup (Gionta and Gomez). I beg to differ on the quality of their forwards – Mike Cammilleri is a superstar of the first order and he’s proving it. The amount of shots they block are unreal and they leave perfect sight lines for Halak. Like they say in any team sport when a championship is on the line – the best offense is great defense and the Caps just don’t have that and won’t win a championship until they learn how to play it.

  15. BONZAI says:

    DANEVIL…yes, the presidents trophy IS fancy. No, the Capitals are NOT picking last in the draft, they pick 26th due to losing in round one. To my knowledge, the 4 conference final playoff participants have the last 4 picks (meaning the Habs pick AFTER the Caps) with the Cup winner picking last. But what does the draft have anything to do with this discussion?? Answer: nothing. Ditto for the “2 50 million dollar teams”…the Caps, Pens, and Habs all have similar salary cap numbers from the past season (about 56-58 mil each). And what is Ovie missing out on exactly? But kudos to your team buying into Martins system…

    DANEVIL, what you’ve just written is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever read. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone on this blog is now dumber for having read it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.

  16. BONZAI says:

    Since I go that out of my system…

    You bring up some interesting questions, but I feel the reward (home ice thoughout, playing the lowest seed each round) is just fine. If the roles were reversed and an 8th seeded Caps had just completed an epic upset over a President’s Trophy winning Habs would you pose the same questions? The fact remains that the Caps had 3 chances to close out the 8th seed, twice at home, and couldn’t deliver. Playoff upsets have happened before and they will happen again, as will lower seeds making deep playoff runs. That the East could potentially be represented by the 7th and 8th seeds doesn’t mean a whole lot to me as 1 vs 2 are facing off in the West. This postseason, the Sharks and Hawks have handled their business so far while the Caps, Devils, and Pens have not.

    I agree with ULLY…before the playoffs I wouldn’t have said Cammalleri was an elite player, very good certainly. But, damn, he’s been in full on Beast Mode all playoffs. One could argue that he’s on the precipice of elite status at least. Who would you rather have come playoff time right now? Semin or Cammalleri. Exactly.

  17. Dakota says:

    Regardless of what happened to the Caps this year, it would make some sense to change the playoff format. It’s silly that more teams get IN that are out after an 81 game regular season. It used to be much worse where like 12 of 18 made but….

    Would it really be so horrible if 12 of 30 made it?

    Number one seed in each conference gets a bye.
    The two division winners get home ice.
    Next two best records in each conference get in.

    Re-Seed after the first round.

  18. Geo says:

    imho, if the NHL doesn’t like lower seeds being Cinderella stories, then just sheer 2 seeds off in each conference and make it 1-6. Will that ever happen? Heck, no.

    Or they could go back to 5-game series in the first round. That would’ve helped the Caps this year no doubt (They would’ve had the Habs 3-1), but they’d have been in agony with the Rangers series last year or the Flyers series year before. That’s of course assuming the series still played out like that – 5 game series had a different pace.

    But basically, the world rotates around money and there’s just no way the NHL or its owners would agree to having Fewer playoff teams or fewer playoff games.

  19. Phil says:

    Uhh…Would we all be complaining about playoff formats if the situation had been reversed–Caps at #8 upsetting Habs at #1? Maybe if the Caps had done better than 1-for-199 (or something) on the power play…

  20. Patrick says:

    If you can’t reduce the number of teams to give the top seeds a bye, maybe you could allow the top 4 seeds to pick their opponent from the bottom 4. You could even have an hour show in primetime on Versus the day after the season ends to do it. Top seed picks first and then down the line with the four seed getting whoever’s left. I’m sure the Caps would have picked Philly or Boston for the first round if they had a choice.

  21. Sherrie Van Houten says:

    I was extrememly sorry to see the Caps go down in Round 1. But I don’t think you can call it an upset any longer, and this column sounds a little like sour grapes. Montreal took out the top 2 teams in the East, and they had to do it the hard way. In the next round, they face a team that made an incredible, historic comeback from 0-3. No matter how you feel about the Caps’ loss, these are the two teams that deserve to be advancing.
    And as for moving the team to another division to “toughen them up”, I give you the Red Wings, whose string of 15 consecutive division championships was finally broken this year. They managed to win 4 Stanley Cups despite their “lack of competition”.
    History shows the President’s Cup winner has about a 50-50 chance of winning the Cup. It’s not like the Caps are the first team that this ever happened to…….Finally, the NHL regular seeason is too long, but that’s not going to change. The NHL playoffs, on the other hand, are perfect.

  22. Danevil says:

    cause everyone is complaining about the regular season being “useless”… it sets up the draft picks for lower seeded teams (those not in playoffs)and allows teams a chance to bring up and down players and make trades and changes to build a strong playoff team and a good chance to see where the holes are. as for the 2x 50 million dollar teams… uh hello its called parity??? remember… both teams have the same assets just distributed differently so yeah just because habs struggled this season doesnt mean they didnt have top notch players… maybe 11 new guys took a little longer to gel then the practically unchanged caps but when they did!!!!!! with the new system upsets will be more common cause they are not upsets anymore its all about who puts it out on the ice said day. as for what is ovi missing…. maybe a ring or his name engraved in silver till he gets that hes nothing more than a choker… now what does this have to do with this particular blog…. well let me see people keep crying oh but habs were 19th we were first…playoffs should be shorter then we would have won whats the regular season for blah blah blah… instead of saying hmmm maybe we shouldnt of underestimated them or even better be happy to have witnessed history being written by the greatest nhl team of all time in what was a great series that lasted til the wire…. game 7s are what its all about they are moments that never die no matter the result!!!!!

  23. Mike says:

    Will the regular season be shortened? No. Why? Money.
    Will the playoff format be changed? No. Why? Money.

    Hockey doesn’t have a huge television contract to support league operations – a significant chunk of the finances come through the gate. For many teams, the difference between making and losing money is a run into the playoffs. That’s why 16 teams get in to the playoffs (more than are kept out) and that’s why playoff rounds are seven games. The owners are not going to cut their financial throat by limiting the number of regular season games, limiting the number of opportunities to make the playoffs or limiting the number of games in the playoffs. Teams taking byes means no revenue coming in the gate for those owners. While a Stanley Cup is a great marketing tool, I think most owners see a dark house in the first round as a lost financial opportunity. This is a business, remember. They’re in it to make money.

  24. josh in TX says:

    No way, don’t change the playoffs. As devastated as I am ab the Caps short exit, the NHL playoffs are by far and away the most exciting time of the year for me. Literally ANYTHING can happen and that’s what makes it so great.

    Like someone said before, baseball doesn’t award a buy. Neither does the NBA. Hockey shouldn’t either. And unlike the NBA nearly all series go deep, to 6 or 7 games. The teams are simply that close in competitiveness.

    I know the Caps “dominated” the regular season. But really, the Southeast division? We blew it, it’s that simple.

    I just get a chuckle when I compare the NHL to the NBA. 3 of the 4 semifinals in the NBA were SWEEPS. The 4th went to a game 6. In the NHL 2 of 4 went to 7 and another went to 6. Our game is too exciting to mess with.

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