TAMPA – After dismissing the Rangers in the first round, the Capitals appeared to have finally come of age. They displayed a level of focus, resolve and maturity not previously seen in the Alex Ovechkin era with that thorough Game 5 performance, and a team that had scuffled mid-season suddenly became a popular pick to win the Stanley Cup.
Well, they had us all fooled, as it turned out. They got us. Again.
As the Capitals were being outplayed by the Lightning in the decisive third period of a 4-3 defeat Tuesday night, they once again looked like a team that is less than the sum of its considerably talented parts. And now, unless the Caps can complete the rarest of comebacks – only three teams in NHL history have ever rallied from a 0-3 deficit – a spring that began with soaring expectations will end with a resounding thud, just like so many before it.
Fans and media will be quick to blame management for putting together a group that can’t win when it matters. Others might point to the coach for being unable to get his team to stick to the game plan for a full 60 minutes.
But I’ll be looking right at the players.
I’m not saying General Manager George McPhee and Coach Bruce Boudreau should be absolved of all culpability for the predicament in which the Capitals find themselves. I just know that what transpired in the third period of Game 3 at St. Pete Times Forum was more about a lack of “will and want,” as Boudreau often puts it, than the failings of a front office or the absence of preparation or strategy.
That notion was confirmed after listening to a few postgame interviews in the visitors’ dressing room. Center Jason Arnott said his teammates were too quick to “relax” after taking a 3-2 lead in the second period. Defenseman Karl Alzner agreed, saying the Capitals became “complacent.” Mike Knuble, meantime, said the Lightning’s ability to score, almost at will, left them “flabbergasted.”
Those aren’t words you’d expect to hear in a dressing room that’s only 12 months removed from one of the most embarrassing collapses in postseason history. Getting out-shot 15-5 and allowing goals 24 seconds apart isn’t the type of effort required from a team that might have been playing for the right to stay together.
The Capitals needed their best players to be nothing less than that Tuesday night. Instead, Ovechkin was the only star to punch in for duty. He registered a power-play goal, a primary assist, five shots on goal and four hits.
Ovechkin’s second-period surge, though, wasn’t enough to offset sub-par efforts from Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, Brooks Laich and Marcus Johansson.
Ever since Backstrom missed six games in March with a thumb injury, it’s been thought the center has been playing hurt. But I’ve got it on good authority that he’s as healthy as an NHL player can be in May.
He hasn’t scored a goal in 16 games. He’s managed only two points – both assists – all postseason, and in Game 3, he had twice as many penalty minutes (2) as shots (0) on goal. He also lost 17 of his 28 faceoffs.
Semin had an assist on Ovechkin’s 5-on-3 goal. But the sublimely skilled winger registered only one shot on goal, and it came from the tops of the circle with 1:48 left to play. He attempted six other shots, but four missed the net and two were blocked. He was also a minus-2 and mistakenly, according to Boudreau, jumped over the boards in the first period, leading to a too many men penalty that cost the Capitals a goal.
As for Laich, he also also failed to register a shot on goal, was a minus-2 and committed the neutral zone turnover that led the Lightning’s first strike. Johansson wasn’t much better; the rookie also failed to register a shot and lost four of his five draws.
So, to recap, that’s four of the six forwards who started the game on the Capitals’ top two lines, and they combined for one shot on net.
That, obviously, is not going to get it done.
It also raises questions about the culture inside the dressing room. Who holds whom accountable? How does a talented core, one that’s endured so much postseason turmoil, come out so flat for such a crucial third period?
The coach can only control so much. At some point, the will and want has to come from those in uniform.
There’s only one way that I can envision this roster returning as currently constructed next season. And that’s if they put together an unlikely four-game winning streak. If that doesn’t happen, the time for allowing the “Young Guns” to grow up together will have passed. It will be time for McPhee to make substantial changes to the team’s makeup.