Back[ed] [in] in Black

Bruce Boudreau has been a well-perched witness to the opening of the 2010 Calder Cup finals, taking in the action from the Bears’ corner suite in Giant Center. About an hour after Hershey had fallen to the Texas Stars for the second consecutive game on home ice last night, while riding back to D.C. in a caravan of hockey bloggers, I told my carmates that I was glad that Gabby was seeing again, anew, how a team with less skill could take down a big-winning club with its clog-and-snore system in the glory part of a hockey season.

Washington’s hockey fans have been forced to asked a litany of second-guessing questions in the aftermath of the Capitals’ stunning first-round exit from the NHL playoffs in April, the third consecutive spring in which the team failed to advance beyond the postseason’s second round. Among them is this: is Gabby’s get-up-go system fun and productive for regular seasons but susceptible to being bottled up and beaten by a band of committed cloggers in the postseason?

And, because the entirety of the Capitals’ development affiliation employs this system, did the Montreal Canadiens devise a system to beat it, and subsequently did the Manchester Monarchs and now Texas Stars follow it? The Bears overcame the Monarchs’ frustrating center ice clogging in the American League’s Eastern conference finals, but not easily, and Texas is a bigger team that’s used this sytem all season long.   

All Saturday night long media noted the prevalence of black-sweatered Stars’ skaters commanding the middle of the Giant Center ice sheet, and the Bears’ refusal to patiently attack it with a blue-collar ethos.

“The middle of the ice is what we want to own,” Stars coach Glen Gulutzan said afterward. They own it alright.  

Hershey head coach Mark French has asked his club to execute what he admits is an unexciting strategy to what the Stars are using to frustrate his hockey club. He wants his skaters to attack Texas’ sagged box in the middle of the ice with a patient perimeter attack. They have not. Six periods have  been played in these Calder Cup finals, and they have been six frustrating stanzas for the defending champs. Consequently, the Bears are in a 2-0 hole, and this morning they board Bear Force One for a flight to Austin and three dates on their adversary’s ice this week. They have a daunting task ahead of them: no team in American League history has lost the first two finals games at home and gone on to win a Calder title.

There is the very real possibility that the Hershey Bears won’t be returning to Giant Center this season to play more hockey.

“It’s maybe not a fun way to play, the way we’re asking, but it’s an effective way,” French told the media after Saturday night’s 4-3 setback in game 2. “It’s like we want to be rewarded right away.

“At defining moments in the game we made poor decisions,” he added.

French was alluding to the litany of instances in which all of his skaters refused to stick to the coach’s strategy and instead overpassed or vainly forced passes through the Stars’ middle-of-the-ice ice forest of defenders. That’s precisely what Texas wants, and on Saturday night they used a handful of high-in-the-zone turnovers to transition the other way with lethal effectiveness.  In just the opening two minutes Saturday night the Bears surrendered two odd-man breaks and a breakaway from forcing the issue in the Stars’ end.    

Up in the Giant Center press box the assessment early on was unanimous: the Bears to date have yet to believe in and adopt French’s decree, and they’re paying a heavy price for it. In just about every instance  of a Hershey attack Texas had two to three black sweaters back in tight in front of netminder Matt Climie, and usually four in a disciplined box. The Bears are actually making things easy for Texas in this series with their stubborn insistence on attacking this clogged, shooting lane stifling setup with ill-advised cross-ice passes an a one-too-many pass approach that Texas always redirects out of harm’s way.   

To this strategic shortcoming Hershey added the double whammy of ill-timed and shockingly undisciplined penalty taking. An inadvertent high sticking on Texas’ Matt Stephenson afforded the Bears a four-minute power play deep in their third period of a 3-3 game, the first 31 seconds of which brought a 5-on-3 advantage. But some 90 seconds into the extended advantage Boyd Kane took a 4-minute penalty for spearing. French termed it a “substantial” development in the game.

The Bears were just beginning to do some dirty work in the Texas end and pile up some shots when Kane halted the momentum. He acknowledged his lapse in a quickly emptying Bears’ locker room afterward. The Bears took six infractions on the evening overall, and French identified four of them as unacceptable.   

Former Bear and Caps’ draft property Travis Morin won the game for Texas with a soft backhander from a severe angle that somehow elluded Michal Neuvirth with just 46 seconds remaining. The tally again was the result of a Bears’ forward failing to force the puck in deep in the Stars’ end, the visitors counter attacking fast and stunning an all-time record Giant Center crowd. 

You wondered just what Bruce Boudreau was thinking from on high as he watched Stars’ players pour out onto the ice in consecutive upset victories fashion as the clock expired.

When you win 60 games in a regular season as the Bears did, scoring goals in bunches and generally hosting a party of playing razzle-dazzle with the puck in your opponents’ end each night, it must feel foreign-language alien to be asked to lunchpail it in finesse fashion, cross-ice one-timers and fan-raising artistry replaced by a chess match of perimter patience. The Bears in this series are required to replace their Super Chexx dome hockey pace with grandpa’s Stiga table top game. To date they haven’t stopped trying to feed quarters into the slot for the table top. The dilemma they’re now in probably will force them into a begrudging acceptance of the task ahead.

“We didn’t win 60 games for nothing,” captain Bryan Helmer warned afterward. His teammate Kane pointed to the experience with Manchester as additional support: “Manchester frustrated us too and we got it done,” he noted.

Even if both players are right Mark French’s gameplan this series certainly seems to suggest that changes in Washington for next spring are badly needed.

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This entry was posted in American Hockey League, Bruce Boudreau, Calder Cup, Hershey Bears, Morning cup-a-joe, Washington Capitals. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Back[ed] [in] in Black

  1. Angie says:

    Well let’s make sure that the Pens change their game too because they didn’t win either, oh wait is that because they were too tired to play? I am so bored with all of the Caps need to change how they play rhetoric. The Caps had massive amounts of shots on goal, the Caps got beat by an amazing goalie. That goalie and that team of shot blocking machines that was the Habs did the same thing to the Pens if memory serves. The Caps need to focus more on some areas of play yes, but the system isn’t broken to the point that it needs to be overhauled. Shot blocking, storming the crease and that woeful power play performance need to be addressed. The biggest need is consistency and to listen to the coaches when they tell them, this is what you have to do. That goes for the Bears as well!

  2. OvieTracker says:

    It’s way too easy to blame the Caps style of play for their loss to the Habs in the first round. As Angie pointed out, they ran into a super hot goalie in Havlat, and the Pens suffered the same fate in round 2. There are reasons the Caps had problems closing out the Habs after being up 3-1, but their style of play isn’t one of them. IMO their problems started before the playoffs began, but I won’t go there because it would involve pointing fingers at Ovie. It hurts me to have to say this because he’s my favorite player. It’s so true that the ones you love can break your heart.

    Ovie is also guilty of a couple of questionable decisions during the playoffs–one when the Caps were up 3-1 and the other prior to game 7. Again, I don’t want to go there after the fact. It’s pointless now to re-hash history on a blog site. However, how Ovie approaches his first full season as team Captain and the decisions he makes about his responsibilities as team leader will determine whether or not the Caps make the playoffs and how far they will go if they do. After being named Captain, Ovie said he wants to lead by example. IMO that responsiblity goes beyond scoring goals. If Ovie is really serious about the Caps Captaincy, now is the time for him to put those words about leadership into action.

  3. trekronor says:

    @Angie and Ovietracker: Your loyalty to the Caps’ system is admirable but OFB has it exactly right – changes are absolutely needed and in a big way – maybe not blowing it up but changing the style of hockey the Caps play and bringing on some power forwards like Byflugien and Hartnell and a great stay at home defensemen (i.e., dream of Pronger, whom the Caps could have had they learned their lessons from the Flyers’, Rangers’ and Penguins’ series). The Caps employ a run and gun system of hockey that lacks the power forechecking, neutral zone defense and superb penalty killing that marks champions (our penalty kill all year stunk.). Don’t be deluded by eye pleasing wins coming in the NHL’s worst division – it’s a mirage. R.J. Umberger had it right and 3 years running proves his point. As for the Pens, they went to the Cup finals 2 years in a row – and we can only dream of making it to the conference finals!

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  5. TheMermaid says:

    We made the trip to Hershey for Game 2 and the big let-down — glad to know Gabby was there watching too. But I’d hesitate to jump to general big-picture conclusions. Though the Manchester series was challenging, the Bears easily rolled over the opposition in rounds 1 and 2, unlike the Caps. The Bears didn’t play poorly Saturday night and at times looked like the better team — in many ways it looked like an even match-up of two excellent teams with differing strengths. But for the Kane penalty and Morin’s deciding goal in the final minute, which appeared to be a softie, the outcome might have been different, although admittedly the Bears had to play catch-up all night. As for the Caps, changes of some kind are needed going forward, but without forgetting that the ability to score goals in bunches can be awfully nice — and reassuring. Montreal’s taking out the Penguins shows that that the outcome of round 1 wasn’t solely in the Caps’ hands to win or lose. That said, when a President’s Trophy team goes down in the first road to the 8th seed, we can’t just chalk it up to a hot goalie and move on. But no random hitting of the panic button, please. We been through too many years when the Caps couldn’t score to save their lives.

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