“I hope the Caps win a Stanley Cup before I’m dead.” — Kevin Fletcher, age 7, Alexandria, Virginia, earlier this week, relayed by his father on Facebook.
The definition of precocious there.
Good luck with that, Kevin.
This Henrik Lundqvist offered to the Washington Post deep into Monday night: “The great thing is we managed to win the series without playing our absolute best.”
If that doesn’t frighten you about the present and future of the Washington Capitals, nothing will. Lundqvist was commendably frank and spot on: His Rangers club, one that had to especially scratch and claw its way — utilizing the final hours of the NHL regular season — merely to qualify for the postseason, could best the Caps without home ice while receiving AWOL performances from its biggest stars: Rick Nash, Brad Richards, Ryan Callahan. Captain Callahan, a likely leader for the American entry in next year’s Olympics, tallied his first goal of the series in Monday night’s third period of what was already a blowout by the visitors.
They were able to do this because third-liner Derick Brassard — a virtual throw-in in the deal that sent Marian Gaborik to Columbus — outscored the Capitals’ first line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Marcus Johansson.
So it’s come to this: A 6 seed in the East can bring its B game and better our Beasts of the Southeast. Again. Funny to think that a mere two weeks ago there was haughty talk about town of taking it to Pittsburgh this spring. The Washington Post’s Tom Boswell addressed this line of thinking Wednesday morning in an evisceration of the organization I’ll be quoting liberally this morning: “what universe are they living in?”
What the Rangers did to succeed — box it in tight, hurl bodies hundreds of times in front of pucks, make life in front of the net miserable (aka HockeyUgly, which in the NHL postseason is quite beautiful), patiently counter-punch — was strikingly similar to what the 8th-seeded Habs did to D.C. in round one of 2010. A bit of a broken record, wouldn’t you say? The names of the coaches here have changed, a few of the names of the perimeter players have changed, but the maestro remains. Convene the premature end-of-season presser, ladle out the excuses, rinse, repeat.
The early excuses this offseason got a bit creative, and included a conspiracy theory against the Caps articulated by the team captain, heretofore believed to have appreciably matured during this abbreviated season. The GM, for good measure, more or less sided with him. Coach Tortorella, exercising the vanquisher’s prerogative, gazed upon Washington’s fourth or fifth alleged scandal of intrigue this spring and mocked.
I will, without tinfoil cap, weigh in on the series’ officiating: it fairly sucked. It had curious, sustained periods of utterly aberrational one-sided-ness. Then again, this is the NHL. But we deserve better from our captain — in performance and reflection — and I think Tortorella’s not being entirely petty when he suggests that the Caps’ focus on the zebras distracts somewhat from the larger mission.
Moreover, the Capitals have earned the disrespect they perceive to receive from the league when moments get big. They’re legacy recipients of dissing. When the Pittsburgh Penguins have queer arena bookings in spring, it’s the Capitals who are asked to accommodate (jeopardizing their competitive integrity in the process). When the league expands to the American Southeast, the Capitals are cherry-picked to join the newcomers, watering down well developed Mid-Atlantic rivalries and neutering the appeal of the home slate. Remember three years back when the 2011 Winter Classic was announced, and how Mr. Leonsis made a point of boasting that he had extracted from the league “a promise” to bring that game to D.C., and in short order? Well four years later there will be six outdoor NHL games contested next season, and not only won’t the Capitals be hosting one, they won’t be playing in any of them.
Until they prove otherwise, the Capitals — for good reason — are viewed by the league as Small Timey, an entity that can be trifled with. And when you have two faces of organizational leadership proffer conspiracy theories in postseason pressers, that only reinforces Small Timey sensibilities. Respect in this league isn’t easily earned; going on 40 seasons in the NHL the Capitals most assuredly haven’t earned it.
I have a ton of respect for the heroic Boston Bruins this spring, and even greater appreciation for what Monday night’s miracle likely meant to that sports-mad city this particular spring. Being in Verizon Center Monday night, I was unable to view Boston’s unprecedented, unfathomable third period comeback in that game 7. I saw the hero goals when I got home. With Rask pulled and less than 2 minutes remaining, the immovable Milan Lucic made it 4-3, swatting home a rebound from about 18 inches out in front of the Leaf cage. The tying goal came some 30 seconds later, with the equally immovable Chara serving as a crease screen for Patrice Bergeron. Intriguing strategy in desperation moments of a postseason, crashing the net with brute brawn. Be nice if that was tried in D.C. one of these years.
Very interesting sidebar to that Boston Miracle: After game 6 Sunday night the Bruins learned that their charter home was sidelined with mechanical issues. That’s no time for serious travel woes. Recall the Capitals’ travel travails in the leadup to game 5 of their 2010 series with Montreal (Fog-gate). The Bs on Sunday quickly decided to make a restful night of it in Toronto and travel home the next morning. The Caps of course opted to leave their players on a stranded jet for hours and ultimately deliver them home around 5 a.m., subsequently missing out on a practice with that series’ momentum swiftly altered. Winning organizations, I posit, win for reasons large and small.
In the early hours of yet another colossal Capitals collapse, however, some influential natives aren’t stomaching the annual double-speak, sophistry, and — again quoting Boz, “delusional denial” — coming out of Kettler. Boz, in fact, led the wood-shedding Wednesday:
“When you have a general manager who has been in his job 16 years but hasn’t been to the Stanley Cup finals since his first year and that GM builds teams designed to win in the regular season and fill up the rink for his boss but not to weather the demands of the playoffs, why would you think he’s going to win it all?
“When you have a star who was made captain not because he deserved it but in the hopes that it would prod him to get in better shape, cut down his carousing and show some leadership, why be shocked when he scores fewer goals (one) in a first-round exit than Rangers fourth-liner Arron Asham?
Interesting themes there, no? How many GMs in contemporary pro sports avoid a pink slip over a decade-and-a-half plus without ever achieving anything? And the matter of the fraudulent captaincy rises again. Mere weeks ago we were supposed to believe that running roughshod over the Southleast — earning yet another Trophy for Trying banner — was vindication. Boz has something to say about this, too: “it’s the soft Southeast Division universe, a kind of parallel world where you play pigeons all season, then meet birds of prey in May. Next year, the Caps will fight for a playoff spot against the Pens, Flyers, Rangers, Isles, Devils, Columbus and the ’Canes. Life is about to get a lot harder.” It is indeed.
Already of course the team is pitching optimism for next season: Laich and Erat (would you do that trade again?) will be healthy, the blueline is solidified in a comparative sense (compared to the previous 8-10 seasons), Oates is a fine coach, and he gets Ovi and Ovi gets him. But every spring reveals essential flaws that architect McPhee can’t or won’t acknowledge. Marcus Johansson is a really nice kid, a wonderful skater, and he works really hard, but he is not an elite talent. Wonderful passes come his way from across the ice and most often they die on his blade. In this organization he skates on the top line. John Erskine again had a season whose sum was greater than his component parts, but he is not a top 4 blueliner in this league. But he is on this team.
The Capitals lose when it matters not because of conspiracies against them but precisely because of how they’re assembled. And perpetual losing when it matters, which is this organization’s legacy, is an added burden every rendition in red skates with, no matter how spiritedly they suggest otherwise. That plays a part in their choking away so many game 7s, so many sizable series leads. The region now has red-clad 7-year-olds who know this.
Here’s the Post’s Mike Wise cutting to the chase: “Taught early in this business to root for good stories instead of teams, I nonetheless feel the Capitals are annually telling me what they keep telling their emotionally beaten-down fans: Don’t get your hopes too high because we’ll eventually dredge out your aortic valve with a backhoe.”