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Capitals have yet to learn how to make it easy on themselves

Mike Wise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 24, 2010; 12:35 AM

Mike Knuble talked about the power play as if it were a house key that was supposed to be under a pot in the backyard. "Best in the regular season -- where did it go?" the 38-year-old winger said.

The coach was flat-out furious; Gabby almost went gonzo.

"What do you think?" Bruce Boudreau responded when asked if the Capitals had let this 2-1 duel of netminders slip away. "We have Game 5 in our building, and we play like crap the first 10 minutes, and the game's over."

Lineup changes were threatened for Game 6 in Montreal, a plane ride the Capitals so did not want to take.

Star players were called out.

That's right, you Alexander Semin, you scorer of no goals in your last 12 playoff games.

And you, Mike Green, there is a reason why you're Everybody's Favorite Cap to Pick On lately, and it's not because you keep letting the puck go under your blade like Bill Buckner let a baseball slip under his glove.

You have two assists in five games. Those are not Norris Trophy finalist numbers; those are Stephon Marbury numbers.

And you, Tomas Fleischmann, you have done almost zilch in this series and should soon be paying for a rinkside ticket.

Power play? Power outage. The most proficient team in the NHL in the regular season with a man advantage has now scored once in 24 times in five games against the Montreal Canadiens. As a fed-up Knuble said, "Our penalty kill has outscored our power play [2 to 1] and that's not going to get it done in a series."

When Gabby was asked to concur with Brendan Morrison about the team's lousy man-advantage offense, he replied. "I'd agree that it's part of the reason. The other reason is that we're not getting 20 guys playing. We're getting 13 and 14 guys every night, rather than everybody coming to play. Tonight we had five or six passengers again."

Ouch.

What happened to close-out night at Verizon Center, the icing on the cake that would give Washington the series over Montreal in five games and preserve their bodies before the physically taxing Flyers in the next round?

Jaroslav Halak and his 37 brilliant saves happened.

Early-game defensive lethargy happened.

Semin didn't happen.

Green didn't happen.

Most of all, making it easier on themselves didn't happen for the Capitals.

Have you heard this lament before, like last spring? If it takes another seven-game war to learn their lesson, this is not a good sign.

All the Caps know is going the distance the past two years. They have mentally and physically trained themselves to handle adversity as well as anyone in the NHL in playoff series against the Flyers, Rangers and Penguins the past two seasons.

They do the Proving Everybody Wrong thing perfectly, no -- coming back from 3 games to 1 twice and forcing a Game 7 with a pulsating victory in overtime at Mellon Arena a year ago?

But how long before they learn to prove people right? How long before they handle the responsibility of winning the Presidents Trophy and losing just 15 games in regulation from October through April?

Playing from a position of strength seems like the last intangible needed to truly make a Stanley Cup playoff journey into June.

"You're always told about killer instinct, you hear that term when you play all the way back to when you were a kid," Knuble said. "That's easy to say. But this is the NHL. No one is going to roll over."

"Killer instinct, "Keeping the foot on the throat" ¿ it's all overwrought sports jargon for handling prosperity. But its usage in relation to the Capitals is understandable.

They are gradually learning one of the hardest feats in professional sports -- making life easier for themselves before the next round, putting away an inferior opponent.

They're not only changing on the fly; they're learning on the fly. And if the painful lesson of this season is finding a way to beat a beaten team on home ice to close out a series before a Game 6 or 7, so be it.

The problem is, that might mean no Cup this year ¿ given that the last eight champions have had at least one short series of five games or less. Boudreau stressed that to his players prior to this series. The goal was within reach after such a stellar two-game showing in Montreal. And then the puck dropped Friday night and they fell flat out of the gate.

It wasn't entirely the Caps' fault. They fell behind 2-0 and were foiled for most of the night by a contortionist posing as a goalie. Halak borrowed his kick saves from Dominic Hasek 10 years ago and flashed his leather like Patrick Roy, circa mid-1990s.

Montreal was also plainly more desperate offensively in the opening period, stunning Semyon Varlamov with two early goals that weren't necessarily his fault.

The Caps outshot the Canadiens and kept rushing the net for the next two periods, flailing at the puck like a piñata, cutting it to 2-1 moments into the second when Ovie poked it through in front of the net.

He's been more of a grunt-work creaseman than a glitzy forward for much of the series, camping out a few feet of the goalie like his nemesis in Pittsburgh.

At one point he went trough a phalanx of white Montreal jerseys midway through the second period. Unable to knock him off the puck, the Canadiens finally were called for too many men on the ice.

He wanted Game 5; you could see it in his body language. Trouble is, that kind of desire among some of his teammates was a precious commodity.

If more of Boudreau's players had that kind of immovable desire, maybe they're resting up for Philly next week instead of catching another plane flight.

"I don't know," Boudreau said prior to the game when asked if his team had a killer instinct. "We've never had this opportunity. Tonight is baptism under fire with this group as far as having a lead in the playoffs and seeing if we can finish."

Gabby got the answer the coach and no one in the arena wearing red wanted Friday night. Because the Caps couldn't close the series out, it's going six or possibly seven.

They can right their wrongs at Bell Centre and put this bad start in Game 5 behind them. But if Game 7 comes to pass, that's a very bad omen for a team that really needs to understand it has the best record in the National Hockey League for a reason.

They earned the right to be top dog. When they stop behaving like that team as they did in Game 5, all the old, down-and-out memories come back and make the Capitals forget they don't have to make it this hard on themselves anymore.

That's right, you Alexander Semin and you Mike Green. Go north and take what is yours. Be done with these playoff pretenders from Montreal.

Calm Gabby down, for heaven's sake; he looks way too flustered for a coach with a 3-2 series lead.

wisem@washpost.com

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