Washington Capitals are built for the regular season and they are punished for it in the Stanley Cup playoffs

The Washington Post's Tarik El-Bashir joins the discussion at Washington Post Live about the Capitals Game 7 loss to the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the NHL playoffs.
By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 30, 2010

You can say the Caps choked. You can ask whether the coach should be fired. You can wonder whether Alexander Semin or Mike Green should be traded. You can apologize for the Caps by saying a hot goalie beat a near-great team. You can even whine about a call that negated a goal.

There's some truth in all of it.

But the Capitals have a bigger problem. They have to decide whether the creative, free-wheeling, crowd-pleasing offensive system they've built around Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, and Green and Semin, is so at odds with the rugged, tense nature of NHL playoff hockey that it must be fundamentally changed. Not tweaked. Not enhanced with more goal-mouth tough guys. But an entire team's on-ice personality radically altered.

If they reach that conclusion, and it will be tempting after the biggest choke in Washington sports in my lifetime, then they will have to attempt a reworking of the team's personnel and style that will be so widespread and destructive that it could be more dangerous to their future than the problems they already have.

If you make the decision to build a better version of a standard built-for-the-playoffs NHL team, then you probably have to get rid of Coach Bruce Boudreau. He's a master of attack but clearly no mastermind of postseason psychology or tactics. You'd probably have to get rid of Semin, who is reluctant to go to the net, takes foolish penalties and squeezes his stick too tight under pressure with no goals in his last 14 playoff games. And on and on.

Before anything so radical is attempted, and before Caps fans consider leaping from a roof, or pushing the Cap of their choice off a bridge, let's analyze what we've seen the last three postseasons and try to understand why the Caps' style of play is punished so painfully at this time of year.

First, pressure erodes finesse skills in all sports. And the ability to shoot a hockey puck into a six-inch square hole is the skill that's first to go.

According to several Capitals coaches, the best analogy to a hockey shooter in a slump is the baseball hitter who starts to grip the bat too tightly in October and sends himself into a tailspin. The slightest glitch in timing is fatal. The goalie starts to look as big as a house.

"You get a little more antsy. It's a little more frustrating and you get a little more unnerved because you are not used to that adversity of not being able to score," Boudreau said after the Capitals' 2-1 loss Wednesday. "Unless you've been a goal scorer and been in a slump, it's hard to imagine what goes through their minds."

Look at Alex Ovechkin's two broken sticks in Game 7, snapped in half when he mistimed his slap shot. Even his skills deteriorated under pressure.

Second, defensive courage, in sufficient quantity, can negate a good offense. In the regular season, few want to jump in front of a shot and take a puck to the head, as the Caps' Tom Poti did in Game 6, shattering bones, as yet unspecified, in his face.

But in the postseason, especially a Game 7, everyone looks for a grenade to land on. "They blocked 41 shots, which I've never seen," Boudreau said. That's almost as many blocks by the Canadiens as there were Capitals shots on goal (42).

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