Well, that was quick. So much for the euphoria that engulfed the D.C. area after the Caps’ win over the Rangers. Even the most ardent, optimistic Lightning fan would never have thought that Tampa would sweep the Caps out so quickly. And not only that, but that the Lightning would undress the Caps’ mentally and flat out humiliate them.
So let’s cut to the chase: Bruce Boudreau is gone. I know George McPhee is calculated and does not make irrational decisions, but when he collects himself and reviews this series and the past four consecutive playoff failures, the decision to release Gabby will be a no-brainer. The team needs to move on.
It’s too bad. Bruce is a good hockey coach. He’ll get another job and will learn from his mistakes in D.C. He won’t coddle his superstar players. He’ll learn to make in-game adjustments and aggressively line match. He’ll admit his errors instead of blaming bad bounces on bad officiating. He’ll call out his top guys, not just his third and fourth liners. Eventually, he’ll make it past the second round. It just won’t happen in Washington.
That said, Bruce’s coaching isn’t the primary problem with the Caps. Sure, retaining him isn’t the solution, but I repeat, his coaching is not the primary reason why the Caps, yet again, sputtered out so spectacularly. That onus for that crime is to be placed on the Caps’ core players: Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and Mike Green. When the going has gotten tough in the playoffs, this group collectively has never responded at a superstar level.
Three of the four of the Young Guns were awful this series. Semin was non-existent; Backstrom was ineffective; and Mike Green was schooled in his zone too often. Ovechkin wasn’t awful, but tried to do too much and rendered himself to be a liability at points in the series. Some playoff series you’ll get two, maybe three of these guys playing well; never do you get all four clicking at once, which is what it would take for the team to be successful in the playoffs.
What’s the root cause of the Young Guns collective inability to click simultaneously? The answer is not a lack of heart, nor is it a lack of skill. Honestly, I think the core group is just not a mentally tough bunch. They lack the appreciation of the mental aspect of hockey, the preparation, the intensity, the on-the-fly adjustments, the systems play, the importance of teamwork, the strategies. This group has never demonstrated the ability to bring the same intensity game in and game out — a mental issue — nor do they hunker down and find ways to adjust to other team’s strategies. Until they get it, they will continue to be the biggest underachievers in hockey since the Eric Lindros-led Flyers of the 1990s. (But even that squad made the Finals once.)
No matter how many Jason Arnotts or Mike Knubles are brought aboard, the post-lockout Caps have taken on the persona of the Young Guns. And no matter how much fans appreciate what the Young Guns have done in the regular season or how they’ve brought excitement to D.C., this group has collectively failed when it matters most. The playoffs are as much about playing smart as anything else, and they just don’t have that capability. Expecting them to repeatedly put in 60 grueling minutes night after night in the playoffs, against the best the NHL has to offer, is simply not in their DNA. Truth be told, they can’t even do it in the regular season.
So what do the Caps do? A new coach may help. McPhee has to accept that no matter how the Caps perform in the regular season, the team he’s constructed is not built for the playoffs, regardless of whether Lady Luck blesses the team (as she did in Round 1) or not (as she did in Round 2). There are just too many passengers who are unable to compete at the appropriate level every single night.
Obviously, McPhee can’t get rid of Backstrom and Ovechkin. They are still a formidable core that will keep the Caps competitive for the next decade. But outside of a few of the younger players on the squad, everyone else is fair game for a lengthy review of their place on the team. New blood will need to be brought in. This new infusion of players will probably not be as skilled, but if they’re coachable and hungry, it’ll be an upgrade over this flawed team that has only won two series in four years.
Where does this leave us fans? If you’re a Caps fan you know this is par for the course. It’s a different year and different type of choke job, but it always has the same ending. We were simply gifted with a cursed franchise.
But, don’t forget, it’s still our franchise. This fan base has been through a lot of pain, courtesy of some unimaginable playoff failures, but one day the Washington Capitals will win a Cup. When we do, this city will appreciate it more than any American city ever could, simply because of what the team has put it through over the past 25 years.
Stay strong, Caps fans.