Winners win, and losers lose, and they do so in our sport for very specific, very traceable reasons. And every once in a while a lone figure from our sport steps forwards to discuss, courageously, and with candor, organization’s reasons for winning and for losing.
Somewhat dispassionately, with unwavering discipline, not unlike a serial killer, the underdog Devils just extinguished all life out of the Philadelphia Flyers. To watch last night’s third period in Philly was to watch finely trained assassins carry out their mission. At no time in that final frame did Philly resemble a team that could reverse its fate.
A team holding a 3-1 series lead can be thought of as a killer with his hands applying a strangle grasp about his victim’s throat. To New Jersey, Claude Giroux’s suspension meant merely an added vulnerability for the targeted victim, an opportunity to squeeze the throat harder. The Flyers last night scored the game’s first goal, but soon thereafter were in the Devil’s clutch, from which there was no escape.
Serial killers, of course, are unrelenting, of singular, lethal focus; they never afford their victims escape. A hockey team leading a foe 2-1 on the road in a pivotal playoff game, with just seconds remaining, can be thought of as a trapper that has his foot pressed down firmly about the back of the head of a poisonous snake. Lift that foot and you run the risk of being bitten.
About the middle of the Devils-Flyers series, during a stoppage in play in game 4 I think it was, just as the Devils were exerting brute, irreversible force on Philly, the NBC television cameras panned in on Lou Lamoriello, and the game announcers launched into a fabulously intriguing discussion of how the manager had, with a surgeon’s precision, applied the very best management practices of the very best sports organizations to his Devils club. The announcers sought to establish that what we were witnessing in this 2012 playoff series, immediately after the Flyers had so impressively vanquished the Cup favorite Pens, was anything but a fluke, and rather yet another milestone the byproduct of a marvelous blueprint. I found myself grudgingly nodding in assent. Yes it helped Lou immeasurably securing Martin Brodeur with that 20th pick in the 1990 draft, but this Devils organization under Lamoriello’s leadership was destined to succeed.
Next I found myself thinking: Wouldn’t it be nice if television cameras one game day panned in on George McPhee, seated in his Verizon Center manager’s perch, and announcers articulated a similar sentiment. George McPhee has been the Capitals manager for 15 years. Exactly what manner of infrastructure excellence is he commonly associated with?
I think of the exceptionally well managed Devils and Red Wings as regal serial killers in our sport. They are seldom associated as undisciplined trappers. As such, they serially win Stanley Cups.
The Devils, we thought about six months ago, were in some manner of rebuild. Turns out, that rebuild lasted about a year. Soon the Red Wings will have to endure Nick Lidstrom’s retirement, and not long after, the departures of other key contributors to their numerous championship caliber teams. And yet I haven’t the slightest doubt that they’ll reload in short order.
That record 23-game home winning streak the Wings carried off this season, it struck me as a bit of an odd pursuit while it was happening. Don’t the seriously aging Wings realize it does them little good to go gangbusters in the regular season, I remember wondering? Then I recalled a reflection from Ken Dryden in his classic book The Game, of his iconic ’76-’77 Montreal Canadiens club, Cup winners that year who played 80 regular season games and lost a grand total of 8 of them. Dryden said that beginning with that season’s very first exhibition game in September that Canadiens team simply desperately wanted to win every game they played. Desperately. That’s the Red Wings of the past 15 or so years to me. You watch them play in Columbus on a Tuesday night in February and they skate like their lives are at stake.
It’s a cultural thing. And it breeds a serial killer mentality, I think.
I am aware that neither the Devils nor the Wings have won a Cup especially recently, but that doesn’t really matter to me. Annually they are assembled such that no one wants to play them in spring. With these two clubs especially, one gets the sense that in competing against them in the postseason you’re competing against a good deal more than the 20 guys wearing their sweater. It’s more than an aura — that comes and goes (ask Montreal). It’s a sense of encountering a hallmark architecture of durable competitive excellence. Moreover, when these clubs advantage themselves in playoff series such that their adversary is wounded, most often they finish off the kill.
Monday night I wanted to see a serial killer’s finishing mentality from the Caps in game 5’s final minute. Instead, I saw the same old Caps. The Capitals are a nice and impressive team, and perhaps becoming more impressive in spring under Dale Hunter. In some respects, I actually believe Hunter is exacting blood from a bit of a stone of a roster — a handful of AHL+ talents this spring in D.C. are looking like quasi NHL All Stars. But until they press that boot down firmly on the heads of snakes and snuff out mortal threats they aren’t appreciably different from about two dozen league member clubs who merely aspire to be cold-blooded killers.
Which brings me to Matt Bradley. I freshly thought of Brads last night, while encountering an eyes-widening Brooks Laich reflection in the National Post. Rather than excerpt it, I feel compelled to render it here visually:
As a fairly solitary figure in these parts who’s durably criticized the Capitals’ culture of recent years, I reacted instantly and vociferously to the cultural condemnation that Matt Bradley courageously brought to Canadian radio last August. Recall the team’s immediate wagon circling (i.e. messenger shooting). But what Laich is addressing here speaks directly to the practice culture Bradley detailed and condemned. (With basically nodding assent from Dave Steckel days later.)
Recall also how Bruce Boudreau lasted a mere three months longer.
Imagine how far back in the microfiche of the Detroit Free Press you’d have to rummage to find a Wings’ player, under the tutelage of Bowman, Lewis, or Babcock, quoted testifying to practice sessions of . . . screwing around, saucing pucks around?
I do believe that much-needed, long overdue cultural change is taking place at Kettler Capitals these days, thanks to guess who, but we’re not where we need to be just yet. The balance of the Rangers series will afford us more vital data on that.
For I’d wager about 50,000 D.C. hockey fans Brooks Laich represents, at the very least, this Capitals team’s de facto captain. A good many among that number I’d further wager believe he should be the actual captain. It’s hardly heresy to suggest that the actual captaincy was arrived at less by merit and more from marketing campaign. Suffice to say: the serial killer clubs in our game don’t dick around with their captaincies.