Ask Boswell: Nats' start, Caps playoffs and Redskins

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Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 29, 2010; 11:00 AM

Washington Post sports columnist Thomas Boswell was online Thursday, Apr. 29 to take your questions about the start of the Nationals' season, the Caps' demoralizing playoff collapse against Montreal and the Redskins offseason.

The transcript follows.

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Tom Boswell: Hi, folks.

Just finished a Caps column which you'll se on line soon.

Though I'd throw up a rough version of it here first. I'll reedit it later for the paper. It you don't want a Caps exegesis, then just skip to the next question. I promise they'll be a lot shorter.

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You can say the Caps choked. You can ask whether the coach should be fired. You can wonder if stars Alex Semin or Mike Green should be traded because they blunder in post-season. You can apologize for the Caps by saying that 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 than any of that. The Caps have to decide whether the whole creative, free-wheeling crowd-pleasing offensive system they've built around Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom 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 goalmouth tough guys. But a whole team's basic 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 their team's personnel and style that will be so wide-spread 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 Boudreau. He's a master of attack but clearly no mastermind of post-season psychology or spring hockey tactics. You'd probably have to get rid of Semin who is reluctance to go to the net, takes foolish penalties and squeezes his stick too tight under pressure with no goals in his last 14 playoffs games. And on and on.

Before anything so radical is tried, and before Caps fans consider leaping from a roof, or pushing the Cap of their choice off a bridge, lets analyze what we've seen the last three post-seasons and try to understand why the Caps style of play is punished so painfully at this time of year. As we'll see, it's not going to change.

These truths about the Capitals and playoff hockey we hold to be self-evident. And the sooner we all accept it, the sooner we, or at least the Caps, can figure out what to do about it, so that spring in Washington can, once again, be a beautiful, not beleaguered.

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 Caps 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. There hardly seems to be a net at all.

"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," said coach Bruce Boudreau after his Caps completed the biggest choke-collapse. "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 Seven, snapped in half when he miss-timed his slap shot, hit the ice first and barely budged the puck while shattering his weapon. Even his skills deteriorate under pressure until he is left holding half a twig in his hands.

Second, defensive courage, in sufficient quantity, can negate a lot of offensive strategy. In the regular season, few want to dive in front of a shot and take a puck to the head, as the Caps Tom Poti did in Game Six, shattering bones, as yet unspecified, in his face.

But post-season, especially a Game Seven, everyone looks for a grenade to land on. "They blocked 41 shots which I've never seen," said Boudreau. That's almost as many blocks by the Habs as there were Cap shots on goal (42).

There are strategies for counteracting shot blockers. They don't work very well. But they exist. "Shoot quicker. Less slap shots. More wristers," said the Caps defensema Karl Alzner. Or you can shoot actually slower; fake a shot, wait for the defender to go down, then make your next move.

But, in any case, the defense can effectively force the offense to change the whole rhythm and feel of its attack. The Caps, and Boudreau, kept begging each other to "get more traffic" in front of the crease for more rebound goals. Score more "ugly goals."

How many teams in any sport can change the way they play that quickly just because they know it's the right thing to do, especially in a swiftly flowing intuitive game like hockey. How do you rewire yourself after six months of playing differently?

"It's frustrating when you are used to doing something and then you only score one goal a game (in the final three loses), when things have come so easily pretty much for 82 straight games," said Boudreau.

Third, a finely coordinated defensive team like Montreal can find ways to take away one star scorer and hope that the pressure to score will shift to lesser stars who will gag on the chance. That's how the Habs held the Caps to an almost unbelievable 1-for-33 on power plays. That's 66 minutes for the Caps, or six minutes more than a full game of playing with a man advantage, with one goal.

"On our power play, Ovie was (usually) on the left wing. They sent a man out just to play on him and dared us to beat them in the middle. That created a little empty pocket that was always open in the middle and they just dared us to beat 'em with it," said Mike Knubble, one of those who couldn't.

Either somebody has to step up and be clutch in the slot with the Great Eight taken away or, Knubble said, "We've got to figure a way around it."

"We used Alex on four different positions on the power play in this series," said Boudreau. "They were taking him away. That's why there were so many slot shots because, whether it was (Brian) Giota or (Tom) Pyatt or whoever on Ovie, they were almost making it a four-on-three. But we'd get a shot away and we wouldn't have anybody in there for the rebound."

In Game Seven, the Caps sometimes but Ovechkin in front of the net, hoping to free up Backstrom to go backdoor. In previous games, they put Ovechkin at the top of the power play.

But in every case, the salient point is that the Canadiens forced the Caps to fundamentally change the way they ran the best power play in the league -- with Ovechkin at his natuiral prefered left wing. And the Caps couldn't or wouldn't adapt.

Good Montreal strategy or no, that 1-for-33 is all the evidence anybody should need as prima facia evidence that the Caps choked -- both players and coaches -- under the pressure of being forced to recreate their power play in the midst of a series.

Finally, all of these pro-defense elements are present in the NHL playoffs every year. This isn't new. If you missed the Caps scoring draughts as they blew playoff leads in the '80's and '90's, then you saw an exact duplicate on Wednesday night.

Part of the reason that the Caps have faced so many "hot goalies" is that they themselves create their own netminding monsters. As a series progresses, the defensively-oriented nature of the playoffs and the Caps inability to adjust, gives goalies a sense that they are inspired. That confidence feeds on itself.

In the Caps case, it is not "hot goalies" that create cold Washington scorers. It is the Caps scorers -- forced out of their normal style, confronted by shot blockers they don't normally see -- who eventually create those horrible hot goalies who beat them.

In '08, The Caps only scored 15 goals in their last five games. In '09 against the Pens, it was it was 15 goals in the last five games, including three extra overtime periods. And this year was the worst. The Caps worst three-game goal scoring slump all season was a total of six goals. Yet in their last three games of the Montreal series, they scored only three goals total -- half as many as their previous worst.

This is the true dilemma that the Caps must face. Not the coach or the stars who "come up small." Their problem is the very identity that they have built for regular season play -- one that is built, as almost anyone would build it, on the incredible offensive talents and creativity of Ovechkin, Backstrom, Semin and Green.

Asked about the failures of those four, Boudreau said, "It's a tough one. Those are all noted goal scorers. But, and I don't know how to answer this correctly, all four of them were almost beyond remorse in the dressing room," said Boudreau. "And what I'm saying is they cared and they tried.

"Nobody tried as much as Alex and Nicky. Sometimes you just don't score goals."

For that, there are actually reasons, rather than babble about chokers or bad karma. It is that problem -- that the playoffs really are vastly different than the regular season for a scoring machine like the Caps -- which the entire organization must analyze this off-season.

And then solve.

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Crofton, Md.: Good Morning Bos!

Yes, the Caps lost. We kinda expected that. Lets not spend the whole day on the ledge over it! The Nat's won another series! Has it been since Philly that we haven't won or tied a series? That is how a good season is made...taking two out of every three games!

Tom Boswell: I think we'll all have one foot on that metaphorical ledge for a few days. That really was almost unbelievable to watch. Even though it felt exactly -- and I mean exactly -- like the final 0-3 and 0-4 Cap collapses to end the playoffs in '03, '96, '95, '92, '87 and '85.

In those concluding loss streaks, the Caps are now 0-23.

Every total-offensive implosion feels like every other one -- as I tried to explain, to a degree, in the post above. At some points, apparently -- and I would not have guessed this until I saw it in the last week -- the amount of offensive talent doesn't seem to matter. Once you are in the clutches of The Thing, it drags you under the water until you drown.

That was a sad, sad scene last night.

In time, we'll probably get some pleasure out of the Nats. Maybe a lot. But, on a city-wide basis, it's not going to come close to negating the hurt people feel about the Caps.

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Knoxville, Tenn.: Bos,

It has been a good three weeks for the Nationals what with a 12-10 record to date and I realize there is a lot of baseball still to be played. My question is at what point in time does the Nats front office take a look at the job Jim Riggleman has done and extend his contract? I myself was disappointed that they only gave him a one year contract (with a club option as I understand it)after the good job he did in 2009 as the interim manager.

Tom Boswell: I thought Rig did a very good job last year. But it is only this year that you are starting to see his strongest quality, the managing trait for which he is known inside the sport __Handling A Game.

To do that really well, and he can, you need a roster with a variety of talents, including speed, and players with the flexibility to play multiple positions.

Wow, has he got that now!

So far in '10, I'd say he is doing a great job.

If they wanted to extend him TOMORROW it would be fine with me. Manny Acta got a multi-year contract in Cleveland!

I'll try to check into what the Nats thinking is on Rig.

Now, Rig has 20-steal speed (or much more) in Morgan, Maxwell (41 steals in the minors and majors last year), Kennedy (20 last year), Desmond and Taveras who stole 68 bases -- that's 68 -- two years ago.

Also, with Guzman's good will in switching positions as needed -- SS, 2nd and even RF so far -- Rig has a zillion moves he can make for defense, for extra late-inning running situations and to platoon against LH or RH pitching.

Kennedy is smooth at 2nd and 3rd, then can play 1st in late innings. But I am starting to think that, at about 6-feet, Kennedy may not be better than Dunn at 1st! Gonzalez can play almost anywhere and Harris can play LF, RF and 3rd.

This is almost unique.

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Chantilly: The Nats are 12-10 and better than expected but realistically, this is not a team that will contend. They are fun to watch but this is not the long term contender that Tampa just built. DO you think Rizzo has the cajones to start selling off marketable pieces (Dunn, Willingham, Capps) if this team is 5 games over .500 in July?

Tom Boswell: Thanks for the question, but you gotta be kiddin' me!

Dunn, 30, Willingham, 30 and Capps, 26, can be "pieces" of a contender in three years. You don't want to give Dunn or Willingham a Ryan Howard-length deal. But you can extend Dunn three years tomorrow, as far as I'm concerned, and give two years to Willingham. They are fine players. Willingjham is working hard to get better in LF and has gone beyond "not too bad" to "sometimes pretty good."

I'm holding my breath on Dunn's defense. But he can really scoop low throws well -- much better than Nick Johnson last year who was turning into a butcher on that play. Dunn even made a key cacth in the 9th yesterday on a foal pop up as he bumped into the tarp. How long will it be before he actually takes a foul ball away from a fan! Coming soon.

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Springfield, Va.: I'm not going to say that it's completly Mike Green's fault we lost ... But he proved to be a major liability during the playoffs, a rushing defensemen that doesn't score is worse than useless. He hurt the team. I say trade him for a Jack Johnson, Brooks Orpik type. He's got good value.

Tom Boswell: Green's penalty at the end of the first period was as bad a penalty -- for being completely unnecessary, atrociously timed and right where the refs couldn't miss it -- as you will ever see.

I said to Tarik, "Is that as horrible a penalty as I think it is?"

He just said, "Yes."

Since the teams were playing 4-on-4 at the time, it gave the Habs a 4-on-3 advantage which is much better than just 5-on-4 on a PP. There's much more ice to use (or defend if you're the Caps) and it only took Montreal 18 seconds to score. And that set the tone of the whole game.

After that, Montreal could concentrate on defense, defense, defense until the Caps scored -- which they didn't for almost 57 minutes. Any time the Habs needed relief from Caps pressure, they just dumped, chased and forechecked -- as fresh legs jumped over the boards onto the ice. Time after time after time. (Looked like the great defensive dump-and-chase Caps of the '80's.)

On the second goal, Green cleared the man out of the play, but not the puck. The puck is more important. And it was left free 20 feet from the goal. Not nearly as bad a play. Many more unlucky. But in the playoffs, Green is the wrong man in th wrong place at the wrong way too much.

When talking about his four stars afterward, Boudreau made a clear distinction between Ovechkin and Backstrom -- who both ended with 10 points, a plus rating and his blessing -- and Semin and green whose names he seemed to have trouble getting out of is mouth.

Has it reached the point where Boudreau has jumped these two in public so often that it's a problem? Maybe. In the Habs series, he sure nailed 'em. Is that how you encourage young players under pressure?

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American University: Happy thoughts Bos: the Nationals are still doing the impossible, increasing their record to 12-10. My question, is what should the Nats do with a soon-to-be crowded rotation? Lannan, Livo, Atilano, Olsen, and Stammen are pitching well; Garret Mock, Jason Marquis, Ross Detwiller, and hopefully Chien-Ming Wang will be off the DL before too long, and Strasburg's promotion to Triple-A seems imminent. Who's in the starting rotation, who becomes trade bait, who becomes a reliever, and who's just SOL and heads back to the minors?

Tom Boswell: On Sunday, Kasten said to me, "Too Much Starting Pitching" is one of those mythological creatures that people talk about but nobody has ever actually seen -- like the Lochness Monster and the Abominable Snowman."

I told him, "As soon as the team ERA gets under 5.00, I'll use that line." It's there now. If you subtract Jason Marquis' numbers -- which is cheatin' -- the Nats ERA is 4.01 now and falling.

Seriously, I doubt that you will see a moment this year when the Nats have more than five starters whom you'd really trust and want to see in the rotation for a long time. I'll believe Wang when I see it. detwiler's just another "maybe." Atilano has a nice fiesty, happy spirit. But there are a million sinker-slider-changeup guys who have to hit their spots to function decently and get killed when they don't. Soimetimes that can last all season, like Brad Bergesen in Baltimore last year. But can they carry the mechanics over from start-to-start or year-to-year? Bergesen 's ERA is now 12.19. I hope Atilano is a success. But he's also a Show Me guy.

However, if Zimmermann comes back healthy next year, you actually could see a rotation traffic jam that has to be solved with a trade. How awful!

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New York: The near universal consensus prior to the trade deadline was that the Caps needed a solid 2nd line center and a shutdown defender. They didn't get either, and shuffled Fleischmann in and out of that center spot, and traded a defensive defenseman (Pothier) and got an offensively minded one (Corvo). Do you think that McPhee and Boudreau will finally recognize that they can't win the cup with an all-offense-all-the-time approach?

I was a fan of Mike Green but both goals last night were on him. (poor positioning led him to take an unnecessary penalty, and Montreal actually knew how to cycle on their PP) and then he failed to clear the puck on that second goal.) If he had showed up offensively, then maybe he would have been a wash. The only reason I can see not trading him in the offseason is that his poor play in the playoffs is going to take a serious hit on what the Caps could have gotten in return.

Tom Boswell: I wouldn't trade Green or Semin because you can't get full value for them after a collapse that is now being compared to the worst in NHL playoff history. With the "up 3-games-to-1" twist, I wonder if it will move up to No. 1. Ugh.

The GMGM trades were a public announcement that "we're going for the Cup." That may, partly, have contributed to the Caps looking past -- waaaaaay past -- the Habs. Talk about selling an opponent short. But Belanger and Corvo certainly were upgrades.

However, I think you're onto the central point. The Caps have the core talent to be a fabulous offensive team for years. BUT they need to continue adding tough gujys, like Knubble, to function better in the playolffs.

They didn't lose this series because they allowed too many goals or lacked defense. Boudreau's head just about tujrned into a red light bulb when he was asked about that. "They had 15 and 22 shots the last two games," he said.

The Caps need to find a way to combine flashy offense and ugly goals, too. Can it be done? With what changes? Can it be done wioth Boudreau. I'm not going to pretend I have those answers 13 hours after they lost.

But we're going to be talking about it for weeks and months.

This team should be a champion -- someday, somehow. But you don't do it by throwing away core stars. You do it by adding the proper pieces around them.

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Arlington, Va.: I think your column poses a very valid question whether the caps are adequately prepared to adjust to playoff hockey. My only exception is I'm not ready to say Boudreau can't adapt. I think he's earned the time to figure this out and this off season is critical to find a better mix of talent. Caps fans needs to back off the ledge. This team was built for long haul and requires tweaking, not the blow up. That being said, if the same thing happens next year, then all bets are off.

Tom Boswell: Yes, I suspect that this is the position I will end up taking in a column.

Boudreau was given players with a mandate to play in a certain style. Well, he did it. They won the President's Trophy. They had one of the best regular season records in 20 years. They scored 101 more goals than the horribly boring, but admirable Canadiens.

I think you give Boudreau another year. But that's it. Go deep or be gone. That's fair.

But is it more than fair?

I like him an awful lot and, despite his grammar, think he's a really sharp guy. He's brutally honest. I like it. And hockey players, generally, have the thickest skins in any sport. So they can probably take it. But does that same tell-it-like-it-is style work for every player?

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Caps Power Play: The Caps have generally had a pretty dynamic PP with lots of puck movement.

In the playoffs they seemed to become more static with players standing still and trying to move the puck to the point for shots. Point shots being extra easy to block. Montreal also tended to drop down deeper in their zone creating no looks for the point shots.

When a team does that, it can be very effective and the only way to confront that style of defense is to bull your way to the net and battle the puck in.

That's not what the Caps do with the exception of Knuble.

Tom Boswell: Yup.

The Caps keeping saying, "That's what we need to do...Traffic...Ugly goals."

Then they don't do it. Except Knuble and Laich.

But this is the first year they have even tried to build a roster than canm play both kinds of offense.

This is a very young team. And BB called Carlson and Alzner "our two best players" in Game Seven. He clearly thinks they are the defensemen of the future and loves 'em. That's the consensus view, but it's a nice consensus.

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Chantilly, Va.: Bos -- Red Sox fans can tell you plenty about the fallacy of "too much pitching." That's what we heard last year, and somehow much of it vanished.

This year, our best starters were supposed to be Beckett and Lackey. Right now our worst starters are Beckett and Lackey.

Tom Boswell: I think what Yogi meant to say was, "Pitching is 90 per cent of (the headache of) baseball. And the other 50 percent is hitting."

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Boonsboro, Md.: Dave Shenein had a long post yesterday about how the Phillies just gave up the NL East by giving Ryan Howard a multiyear deal. Do you agree?

Tom Boswell: I thought it was a great post, perfect analysis. Maybe we can link it here.

Phils fans got a glimpse of the future this week when, in one game, Howard hit two balls off the RF wall and, on the first, failed to hustle and was thrown out at 2nd, then on the 2nd hit didn't even try to go past 1st base.

Both the amount of the deal and the length are a mistake.

But huge sluggers don't just fall off a cliff. Howard will have more fine years. But probably not when he's 37.

Good for the Nats in a couple-three years.

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Anonymous: Tom,

What is amazing to me is the discussion about whether this series lost is the worst one in the Caps' history. That it is even a debate illustrates how moribund this franchise really is -- 36 years of consistent frustration! What does Ted Leonsis have to do to get his team on the right track before he suffers another "The market has spoken" moment? (Reference to another Caps playoff failure in 2003 against Tampa Bay, when the fans were so exasperated with team that the Caps couldn't even sellout their own arena for a home playoff game).

Tom Boswell: Oh, I think fans will stick with this team. Good Lord, if you don't get excited watching this bunch, what do you want. As soon as somebody wants to waste his/her season tickets, and the seelouts stop, my family will be interested. But I don't think it will happen. These are not the previous Caps. Far more talent, far better farm system and a much better future. Just an unexpectedly horrible present.

It'll plass. But not fast. I'm not looking forward to watch the tape of Game seven again this afternoon.

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Burke, Va.: Ah, Tom, the possibilities! Amazing what some decent pitching does to turn the fortunes of a team like the Nats. Tim K. with ESPN wrote a nice piece on Capps, our closer, today. Worth the read. I really like our set-up man in T. Clippard. The guy is intense and fun to watch. Livan has already earned his contract this year, for the most part. What a steal. And with Strasburg, Wang, Det, etc. we could be in good shape for the rest of the year. Bottom line, it is nice to not be out of contention at the end of April for a change. Go Nats!

washingtonpost.com: Capps leading much-improved Nats bullpen (ESPN, Apr. 29)

Tom Boswell: Clippard and Capps.

"Clip and Save."

Stole it.

I'd like to point out -- pat self on back until arm breaks -- that I wrote entire columns on Hernandez last September (resign him) and I-Rod in the off-season (great signing on several levels). I think I was alone on both of those. But right.

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Alexandria, Va.: I liked your column before the game, where you said it would be the worst in franchise history, which has a lot of bad L's ... Fans wanting to "move on" right away aren't true fans, you have to feel the pain. And get mad. I'm just glad I didn't shell out $100 to witness that debacle. Are the Caps the Cubs, or can they turn into the Red Sox and eventually win the Big One?

Tom Boswell: They can turn into the Red Sox. They've got an elite GM and an owner who learns and adapts.

It's ironic that the 25-to-35-year Cap fanms are probably the ones who "just can't take it any more." The newbie fans probably find it incomprehensible that anybody could give up on THIS team.

I'm in the middle. I've seen it all, actually, as far as the playoffs go, covered it all. I love a lot of sports, but the Caps haven't killed me the way they have their true fans. I've just shaken my head and felt bad for them, but no suffering. So, as bas as this was, I see it as part of the process of developing THIS Ovechkin team, rather than a continuation of the last 25 years.

However, you can't just ignore the context. The Caps are STILL the Caps. They made sure of that last night, just when they could have, perhaps, moved on to New History with wins over the Flyers and Pens, then a good showing in the Stanley Cup. That's what I would have expected -- until they reversed (correctly, I think) the Ovechkin goal. Then the "spooky music" in everybody's head got louder than "Lets Go Caps."

They'll still "be the Caps" in national and NHL mytyhology until they reverse their curse. Which I think they'll do and which I expect to enjoy writing about. Soon.

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Montreal, Quebec, CANADA: Mr. Boswell,

My only comment is as follows: NEVER underestimate the competition. Because you NEVER know how deep they will go to find the strength to win. This team has been the hard work of Bob Gainey who has spent years working to build a team. I think he got it right!

Chances are they will not win against Pittsburgh - but, one thing for sure, they WILL give 150%.... How can you ask for anything more?

Tom Boswell: Excellent point.

Congratulations, Montreal. You're guys had to play a great almost mistake-free series to win. They did it. Beautiful skating, passing, toughness near the nets and complete interlocking discipline. Oh, and the goalie ain't bad.

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Silver Spring, Maryland: If this was a real hockey town Boudreau would be fired today. Good hockey team change coaches all the time. Pittsburgh fired their coach during last year's run to the Cup. The Devils and Red Wings have also fired coaches to get them over the hump. That should be done here. Thanks Bruce, but we need a war time counsel.

Tom Boswell: Funny, I talked to Boudreau about that the day before Game Seven at practice. I said something like, "Can you imagine the load of $%^# that is going to fall on the top players and you if you lose?"

He said, "Oh, yeah."

Okay, that's not funny.

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Washington, D.C.: Outside of the choking the Caps did, the horrid call overturning the early third period Ovechkin goal was ridiculous. There was little or any contact with the goaltender. Then when they ran over Varly, the officials decided to "review" the play. Why didn't they review the call that stole the equalizing goal from us and basically ended our season? Why do the officials hate the Caps? Remember two years ago when the Flyers ran over our goaltender and scored and it counted? That was the tieing goal in that game 7 and the Flyers won in OT. It never ends with our choking and underachieving Caps and the officials only make it worse!

Tom Boswell: Everybody's got an opinion. I think both calls were correct.

Knuble's skate hit Halak's left skate an instant before the shot got there and moved his skate several inches. Anmd, most important, onm slow-mo replay, the Ovechkin shot appears to go withjin inches -- maybe one or two inches -- of where Knuble's skate moved Halak's skate out of the way.

I assume nobody, including Knuble, is good enough to do that on purpose in 1/10,000 of a second. But it was incidental contact with the goalie before the puck is in the net. I thought Joe and Craig, in their Caps post-game, which I watched this a.,m. got it right and didn't try to say it was a bad call.

I suspect my view will not be met with universal agreement!

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Upper NW: Tom, you are aware that before this season's 0 goals, 2 asssists in 7 games that Semin registered 8 goals and 14 assists in 21 games? That's just a 1 point per game pace in the postseason and you (and seemingly the rest of Washington, DC) want to ship him out of town over one bad playoff series?

Tom Boswell: He also had no goals in the Pens series last year.

I don't want to ship him out. But he's been part of the problem, not the solution, in those two series.

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Sec. 314: Next time you see Livo, ask him why he didn't wear the Silver Elvis wig the other night. Atilano had it on last night, so we know it goes on the road.

Tom Boswell: It won't fit on Livo's big bald head.

Seriously, that's the reason.

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Fairfax, Va.: Tom:

The Orioles are starting to remind me of the NBA Clippers. No matter how many good moves they make (in the front office and on the field), it doesn't seem to translate into a better product on the field. What does that franchise need to do to turn things around?

Tom Boswell: Now that (4-17) is an ugly start to a season. Trembley is a good man and a good manager. Now all he has to do is face 11 more games in a row against the Yankees, Red Sox and Twins.

I thought they were turning things around. But, sometimes, it doesn't happen the year that it "should." The Nats started turning around LAST year. Really, they did. But the bullpen imploded, the morale disappeared, Acta's emotionless style turned out to be exactly what was NOT needed. And they fell apart. As soon as Riggle survived his first five games (0-5), they went 33-37 and started this year 12-10. So, they are 45-47 in that time. But the groundwork was laid -- yeah, and the Bowden dynamite planted under the kiddie bullpen -- before '09.

For what it's worth, Rizzo knew how bad the bullpen was. His boss, then, didn't.

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Annandale Va: Montreal didn't get sucked in to trying to keep up with the Caps shot for shot.

They just bided their time and waited for chances and concentrated on limiting Caps chances.

The old time Caps under Brian Murray would probably go further than the type of team they have now.

Tom Boswell: The whole series was like watching a fight between a slugger and a counterpuncher. Loved my years as the boxing writer with Sugar Ray, etc. You don't just count the punch, you assess the damage.

I really think Montreal won this series because they deserved to. And if they'd played seven more games, I think they'd have been just as close as the 11 these teams played this year -- which Montreal won, 6-5.

"Fighters make fights." The Caps ultra-paggressive style played right into the Habs counterpunching preferences.

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L'enfant Terrible: With his delivery, movement, and accuracy, Livan Hernandez looks more like Greg Maddux every day. With a few extra belt notches.

Tom Boswell: Absolutely. Of course, he's abnormally locked in right now and he keeps getting umps with good zones and hitter-unfreindly weathyer (cold, wind in, whatever).

But, over this whole season, I hope Livo will look like "Late Career Maddox" -- the guy with the 4.20 ERA and solid .500 record from age 37 through 42.

Now that Livan's knee is better, if he can keep the weight off, I think he may be a 200-IP, 13-13 pitcher for several years. Almost nobody ever has five starters better than that.

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NoVa.: Tom, I may be the only person who feels this way today, but I say that the Caps gave me unbelievable thrills and chills for the entire regular season and the first 4 playoff games. Yes, I would have preferred to see them win the Stanley Cup, but really you are talking about 82 or so regular season games vs. a max of 28 playoff games. I would practically give my eyeteeth to see the Nationals play well enough to make the playoffs, even if they went out in the first round.

Tom Boswell: I get your point and agree to some extent. But I suspect there were "some" folks in the Phone Booth who had built their plans for the next six weeks around the Caps and were very disappointed.

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Sec314: Will we ever see Marquis in a Nationals uniform again? Or will the team just accept that this didn't work out and move on? By the time he's ready, the competition for starting spots could be a lot more complicated. Or maybe that trade comes this year.

Tom Boswell: Marquis will be back, probably in July. He'll be needed. Strasburg certainly won't pitch in September at all. And Zimmermann only in relief. I assume Marquis will be back to his old dependable mediocre useful self -- next year at the latest, but probably this year -- when he gets his elbow fixed and his mechanics back.

Memories of Cordero, Patterson, Hill, Lawrence can make us too pessimistic. Marquis has "loose bodies" in his elbow, not a torn labrum. Look how Stammen has come back this year -- with better stuff -- after having a golfball-sized bone chip taken out of his elbow.

I didn't believe the "golfball" part until I was told he brought it back in a jar as a trophy to show off in the clubhouse.

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Let's go Capps: Should we worry about Zimm's hammys for the long term or was this strictly a weather issue? Gonzo and Kennedy are good fill ins but we do have to replay the Phils at some point.

Tom Boswell: He seemed confident that it was just a matter of days when I talked to him Sunday. But hammys worry you. Playing in Florida this weekend ought to be warm enough for him. So, we'll see. It's a big deal not to get him hurt for two months.

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Charleston, S.C.: Have the moves made by the Redskins so far improved their chances for a playoff spot this season?

Tom Boswell: They've improved their chances of going 6-10 or 7-9. Against the monster schedule they've got, don't say "playoffs."

They play seven games against teams that won 7-to-10 more games than they did last year. And six MORE games against teams that won 3-to-5 more. And can't find anything even remotely that tough in the last 40 years of Skins history.

Patience, patience. They are doing good things.

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Rimshot, please: A quick search doesn't turn up any golf courses in Krasnoyarsk, so Semin won't have to worry about his scoring in May, either.

Tom Boswell: Noted.

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L'enfant Terrible: So now, officially, we go from "Let's go Caps!" to "Let's go Capps!"

Though if he starts making 10-pitch innings routine, we may not have time. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Tom Boswell: Nicely put, L'enfant.

They need to be careful not to use Capps and Cl.ippard too much. Bruney has a fine arm. Batista has far more left in the tank than I thought. Haven't figured olut Walker yet. But you need to trust them, give them a chance to find their form, while you still have a n ice record, evenm if it costs you a game or two. It could win you a lot molre games later to get the whole bullpen sorted out, not just two pitchers.

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Huntsville, Ala.: Bos,

Your thoughts on the Jason Campbell trade? I believe he will lead the Raiders to the playoffs sometime down the line.

Tom Boswell: From Dan Snyder to Al Davis. Jason is just a lucky guy.

But he's got a better chance as a Raider than he ever did as a Redskin. Hope he gets a full shot at the job and support.

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Washington, D.C.: Tom, the column you just posted is probably one of the best articles I've read on hockey from any source this year. It also raises a question I've been thinking about this postseason: Will we ever see a sabermatics/moneyball-like approach to evaluating hockey players? Seems like there has to be a way to look at certain qualities that are undervalued/under measured that ultimately create championship players.

Also, as an aside and as a Habs fan who has lived in D.C. for the last seven years, I say hang in there Caps fans. I've enjoyed watching your team grow by leaps and bounds over the last decade. While I'm thrilled it's my team advancing, the NHL is probably worse off for it. We need cities like D.C. to continue to embrace hockey if our sport is going to continue to grow in the post-strike era.

Tom Boswell: Thanks very much. And from a Habs fan. Heavens.

I think this series, and the technical hockey issues it raises, are a wonderful chance for a lot of people in Washington, including me, to further their hockey education.

Wow, how's that for a nauseating half-full view.

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Tampa, Fla.: Boz, you scolded a chatter last week for being too pessimistic (about the Nationals), so allow me to preface my Nats question with a quick dash of optimism about the Caps: At least they didn't lose to the Penguins, right?! That's progress!

Regarding the Nats, if you'd told me during spring training (or after the Opening Day massacre at the hands of the Phillies) that they would have a winning records at the end of April, I'd have said you were out of your mind. That said, do you have any concerns about their poor run production? What does your formula say about what their actual record should be since their run differential is at minus-14? I'm not being a pessimist, but I don't want to get too excited about them yet, either.

Tom Boswell: Too soon for run differential. Take Marquis' three starts out and its all different. So, we don't know yet.

Dunn has started to hit. If Zimmerman comes back and finds his stroke, this should be a somewhat better offensive team than last year in terms of runs, but MUCH better suited to close low-scoring games because of its speed. They gave the Cubs and Piniella a three-day lesson in baseball. Lou had no tools. Rig, even without Zim, Harris, etc., just spun him in circles with little-ball and defense.

I realize that everybody wants to vent, including me, but I think we'll have to move to another venue. (Like a golf course?) Gotta get outta here! See you next week.

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Perryville, Md.: Bos, I'm a young father of 3, month is tight, but I'm a serious fan and would like to take my kids to an Orioles game. Since they are young, 8, 7 and 5, you have to sit reasonably close to the field to keep their attention on the game. That means at least $30 a ticket. If I waht to see the Yanks or Red Sox, that's an extra $15-20 per ticket. And If I decide to go on the spur of the moment, it's another $3-5 per ticket. No wonder attendance is falling!

We do see the occasional Keys or BaySox game (fcan't get tix to the nearest team, Aberdeen) and we're hoping to check out the Nats -- congrats on their strong start,

My Dad grew up in Washington and remembers pre-Bob Short, when every seat in the park above the next to th field seats cost $1.50. If you belonged to the WTOP Club, you got 2 seats for $1.50 for one game against each visiting team. Of course he probably made $15,000 ayear, and the players were paid peanuts, but there's still a huge difference between $1.50 and $50.

Tom Boswell: There is a cheap solution, but it involves becoming a Nats, not an Orioles fan

In the last 10 years, the new stadiums have moved right at the demographic you represent. Allow young families to get cheap tickets, then walk the stadium, go to areas specifically for kids and stand at rails which, in some cases, are 10 feet behind the $65 lower-deck box seats with great views.

You can't do that at Camden Yards, great as it is. The idea of walking the park for much of the game didn't exist yet. "Railings" for bargain ticket holders right behind people paying far more hadn't been invented. The Nats park, according to Larry Lucchino, who "invented" Camden Yards, is perhaps the best walking and railing and kid's stuff park in the big leagues. He put some of that in San Diego and is trying for more railbird standing in Boston.

So, buy $10 tickets in the Nats upper deck. They even have discounts on those. Or try for the $5 day-of-game tickets in the far upper deck -- the most panoramic in the whole park, but, of course, the furthest away. It's beautiful up there and cooler in the summer with a constant breeze. Watch some from there -- it's your "home base." But take the elevators down to the lower deck and walk around, find a spot -- or two or three spots around the park -- that the kids like. Also, there are video games, etc., behind CF. I'd love to know if this works out, cuts the price in half, or if there's a problem with it that I don't see.

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