We are going to learn a great deal about the DNA of the Washington Capitals over the next 36 hours. Immediately before them is an enormous if suddenly unexpected task: attempting to gain, on the road, viability in a series everyone predicted them to win but in which tonight they face what is almost certainly a do-or-die scenario. And they must prevail without a functional power play, with general uncertainty about their leadership (on the ice and behind the bench), without a productive no. 1 center, and of course with the ghosts of Capitals’ postseasons past lodged on their bench and in their room.
Ghosts? How else would you explain consecutive playoff games against a weary foe in which pucks deflect off of Capitals’ rearguards and behind their netminder and into the cage, playing pivotal roles in consecutive upsets? And as our friend JP notes, those are only the two most recent such self-inflicted wounds this postseason. That sh*t just doesn’t seem to happen to the Wings, does it?
We love our hockey players, they are wonderful talents, they are to man exemplary civic figures in our community, and in just about every respect they make us proud to be fans. But they’ve an ultimate obligation in their profession — to get it done when it counts. To date, they’ve failed in that obligation. Given their accumulated postseason experience wearing our sweater, it is fair, beginning this spring, to hold them to a heightened accountability.
Ted Leonsis is right in suggesting that postseason prosperity involves, to a degree, having Lady Luck smiling on your side. And the Tampa Bay Lightning are a worthy adversary. But in year six of the Era of Ovechkin, with so many key roster ingredients in place, and with the sting of last spring still fresh, with Sidney and Geno and the Pens already golfing, this hockey club simply can’t author again yet another underwhelming showing in the NHL postseason.
The ramifications are enormous. Washington aches for a sports winner, yes, but Washington hockey specifically has a competitive mandate. Alexander Ovechkin was a lottery winning, and he knows what his role here is: to change our hockey culture. He’s done that just fine October through March. He’s had help along the way the last six years, and the reddening-out of our town — the conspicuous affection thousands of Washingtonians shower upon Ovi and his sport today is extraordinary — but it’s not enough. Nowhere near enough.
The durability of Mr. Leonsis’ business model requires a postseason breakthrough as well. Just take a look at all the upper deck empties at FedEx Field the past couple of seasons. There’s a social contract between a sports organization and its fans. Great dates ultimately have to lead to a kiss. Or we go find another girl.
This hockey club has the requisite skill and experience to rise to the challenge. What we don’t yet know is if it has adequate leadership. It’s a point that’s been debated with some robustness for more than a year now: Did the Caps get it right in stitching the ‘C’ to Ovi’s sweater? Failure this week in Tampa will bring fresh and heated scrutiny to that question. 2010-11 has not been a year to remember for our captain; its premature conclusion would intensify the evidence against his leadership. And the late-season arrival of Jason Arnott only adds fuel to that fire.
This is a postseason tailor-made for Ovi to ascend, but to date, we don’t have that breakthrough performance suggestive that he’s ready to seize that moment and lead his club. Tonight is one such opportunity.
Behind the bench, there is the obvious subplot related to Bruce Boudreau. All seemed reasonably well for Gabby a week ago, but when his club was gifted a lengthy break with which to rest and repair, they came out of it unable to meet the underdog’s challenge. That story is growing old here. Boudreau’s beaten an under-manned John Tortorella set of Ranger clubs twice in the postseason over the course of four springs . . . and no one else. Losing to the rookie, Guy Boucher? At some point (potentially soon) Capitals’ fans are going to ask: where is our Bylsma, our Tortorella, our Babcock, our . . . Boucher?
The team’s power play futility is a flashpoint in this discussion of tactical leadership. Its cumulative results last postseason and this are beyond nightmarish and nauseating: four for sixty. That’s four goals . . . in 60 opportunities. Tampa would bank in 9 or 10 off our dmen with 60 extra man opportunities. The power play personnel is a mish-mash of a mess, their attack ethos uncertain. Confusion and hesitancy reign supreme. The team had all of last week to work on it and get it fixed. Instead, it’s regressed. The head coach has to get it fixed, pronto. The Capitals will either achieve a competent power play this series or they will lose it. Tampa took out the Pens by achieving a glaring special teams discrepancy.
We also don’t know if in Nicklas Backstrom the Capitals have an elite talent centering the no. 1 line who can get it done when it counts. Great in games one through four versus Montreal last April then AWOL thereafter. Through seven games this postseason Backstrom has tallied merely two assists and is skating a -1. He looks anything but elite and dynamic. His scoring drought adversely impacts the team in both 5-on-5 play and power play production. His linemate Ovechkin seemingly senses the slump his center is experiencing, because he’s carrying the puck an awful lot in transition and attempting to make plays by himself. The result is a highly individualized attack by the first unit, which plays perfectly into Tampa’s trap. It’s gotten so bad with Nick that Boudreau bumped up the rookie Johansson to no.1 pivot duties. That’s no recipe for durable contention this spring. No contending team can have its no. 1 pivot merely along for the ride.
Along with my blogger buddies Ed Frankovic and Ted Starkey I was seated in Giant Center late last spring when the Hershey Bears dropped the first two games of the Calder Cup finals to the Texas Stars. The next three games were in Austin, and all looked bleak for the Bears against the Texas trap. Even in game 3 the Bears fell behind 3-1 after 20 minutes. But that Bears team had a warrior leader in Bryan Helmer, among others, and they banded together behind their coach who preached patience with the puck. Michal Neuvirth was in net for the entirety of that series, incidentally, and a fair number of those Calder winning Bears of course are wearing red this spring.
Late Sunday night, addressing the media, Alexander Ovechkin said that his team was traveling to Florida on Monday on a mission to win two hockey games. They really need to. The Capitals this spring need to find their Bryan Helmer. Here’s hoping he’s Russian.