Here are some Washington Capitals playoff traditions:
- Offensive-zone penalties
- Lost leads
- Overtime games
- Overtime losses
- Elevated booze sales
- The prompting of massive regionwide freakouts after (checks schedule), uh, one game
- Foreboding headlines of doom
But I haven’t yet gotten to perhaps the truest sign of the season: national NHL analysts using a Capitals playoff loss as a springboard into a broader organizational critique, plus the suggestion this team lacks a certain je ne sais quoi. Call it avoir des guts, perhaps. Or how do you say gritty and greasy in French?
“I just don’t understand,” NBC’s Jeremy Roenick lamented Friday morning on 106.7 The Fan. “You have the first game of the playoffs — energy should be at an all-time high, preparation should be an all-time high — and I didn’t see anything that impressed me about Washington [Thursday] night. As much as I love Ovi, he was invisible last night. I thought Backstrom was invisible last night. You make mistakes at critical times in the game when you are taught as a player, from the earliest of ages, Hockey 101.
“And [Andre] Burakovsky — who I really love, love watching him, who’s usually very dependable — with five minutes left in the game, in the offensive zone, chases Seth Jones behind the net instead of staying right in front of the net, keeping him in front of him, being very protective,” Roenick went on. “You don’t chase a puck handler behind the net in the offensive zone. And he ends up taking a penalty with five minutes left, up 3-2, and then they score on the power play and tie it up. Little things like that — where you don’t think, where you’re not prepared mentally — seem to be Washington’s downfall time and time again.”
In case any of this requires background: the Capitals, hosting the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first game of a first round best-of-seven series Thursday night, took a 2-0 lead, then saw Columbus tie things up, then went ahead, then allowed a late power-play goal, then lost in overtime, and then fans either said they knew this would happen or that their fellow fans are pessimistic easily frightened losers; or that they’re too numb to hurt or that it still feels like a shiv to the spine; or that they’ve seen it all too many times or that they’re tired of that suggestion.
The best recourse is probably just to take a nice jog in this beautiful weather and then down a brisk iced drink. The worst recourse is probably to listen to a national NHL analyst question the team’s colonne vertebrale. But tradition is tradition.
“Listen, when you have Thomas Vanek outmuscle Brooks Orpik in front of the net as bad as he did [Thursday] night, and not get pushed out; you know, that’s not [Philipp] Grubauer’s fault,” Roenick said. “They took the penalty, now you’re on the [penalty kill] and you don’t get the puck out. I mean, love Tom Wilson, he’s one of those heart-and-soul guys that you need on your team and he does everything that you want to do as a coach, but everybody makes mistakes. He couldn’t clear the puck, twice, on the penalty kill, and it ends up in the back of your net. That’s not Grubauer’s fault. So it’s the little mental things in the playoffs that end up costing you, and it did for Washington. … Columbus pushed them out of the game.”
Clearly, he would have more to say about this, because it’s April 13.
“I’m a Caps fan,” Roenick said. “I’m an Ovi fan. I used to have season tickets for the Capitals. So when I’m critical in my assessment of their team, it’s with frustrated love. I do not understand, with a team that has the likes of Oshie, Kuznetsov, Burakovsky, Backstrom, Ovechkin, Carlson, Orlov — I mean, I just named off 10 players right there that are very, very high-skilled; I would call them stars. And yet other teams that are not as good on paper work harder than them and beat them. And consistently Washington comes and thinks that just because they’re talented, that they can just win hockey games. To win playoff games you have to be gritty, you have to be mean, you have to work harder, you have to want it more, you have to have more sense of desperation. And when Washington loses, it’s because they don’t have any of that, and the other team beats them in those categories.
“Hard work will beat talent seven days a week when talent doesn’t want to work,” Roenick said. “And sometimes Washington falls into that, where they get just kind of in a funk mentally, and just forget about the work part. You’re not gonna do it by just putting on the skates and showing up. You’ve got to put your hard hat and your work boots on and you have to work for it.”
Maybe you’d quibble with Roenick over whether these Capitals are as talented as all that, and whether the errors made by Wilson or Burakovsky really resulted from a lack of grit, and whether the ultimate problem with the 2018 Washington Capitals is that they aren’t mean enough.
But don’t quibble. It’s the middle of April, and a national NHL analyst is saying the Caps don’t want it enough. This is our lot. Just soak it all in.
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