It wasn’t supposed to end this way. After the Washington Capitals dispatched the New York Rangers in five games, this spring appeared destined for a different, better, perhaps historic conclusion.
The players were more mature, we believed, having learned from the tough lessons taught by last spring’s collapse. The dressing room had a better mix of youngsters and veterans. And, thanks to a midseason switch to a more defensively responsible system, they finally were playing the right way, too.
We were wrong.
Fans and media will be quick to point their fingers at management for fielding a lineup that can’t win when it matters. Others might call out the coach for being unable to get his team to stick to the game plan for a full 60 minutes or squeeze a few more power play goals from one of the NHL’s most talented units.
And they’re right. General Manager George McPhee and Coach Bruce Boudreau should not be absolved of all culpability for the Capitals getting unceremoniously swept out of the playoffs with Wednesday’s 5-3 loss to the Lightning. But what transpired in Games 3 and 4 at St. Pete Times Forum wasn’t about a flawed roster or Xs and Os. It was indicative of a larger problem, one that emanates from inside the dressing room and could prove difficult to solve.
How else do you explain the Capitals getting outplayed for the second time in two nights when already down two games to none?
“We didn’t play our best game,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “They were doing all the little things right — again. You would like to go back and replay that game [because] there are a few little things you would like to do different.”
“There’s not a lot to say other than they outplayed us,” he added. “They were the better team tonight.”
Across the cramped dressing room, Brooks Laich was answering a question about Boudreau’s future.
“What do you mean?” the winger fired back. “That doesn’t fall on Bruce. We’re the guys that play the game. Bruce, Dean [Evason] and Bob [Woods], I think we have a dream team of coaches. We’re privileged to play for these guys. Any criticism directed toward them is completely unjust. They put the game plan together and it’s up to the players to execute.”
When the Capitals arrived in Tampa, the situation called for their best players to be just that, and nothing less. Instead, Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, Laich and others will go their separate ways this week wondering what more they could have done.
The list is long. The offseason, though, will be longer.
In nine playoff games, Ovechkin had 10 points (five goals and five assists) but managing only a secondary assist on the night you get swept out of the postseason isn’t good enough for a two-time MVP, the captain of a team that has won the Eastern Conference’s regular season title each of the past two seasons.
Backstrom’s struggles, though, cast a long shadow. Consider this: He took his first three shots of the two contests in Tampa in the third period of Game 4. One season after notching 101 points, he’ll head home to Sweden having not scored a goal in his final 17 contests and with only two points in nine playoff games.
Semin, meantime, came into the postseason with, perhaps, the most to prove. Three weeks later, everyone is still wondering whether his sublime talent will ever translate, on a consistent basis, to the postseason. After scoring four goals in his first six playoff games this spring, Semin registered one point in Games 2-4 of this series. He was virtually invisible in Tampa.
Laich registered an assist on the Capitals’ third goal Wednesday. But it was too little too late. He had a goal and two assists in the series, and only one goal in his final 20 games.
“I don’t think any team can win when your star players aren’t getting the points that are needed,” Boudreau said. “It’s going to be very difficult. I’m not sitting here criticizing our players. That’s just a fact.”
The failure was so thorough that it raises questions about the culture inside the dressing room. Who holds whom accountable? How does such a talented core of players, one that’s endured so much postseason turmoil the past four seasons, get beat twice with their season on the line?
The general manager did his job by adding quality and experience — Scott Hannan, Dennis Wideman and Jason Arnott — during the regular season. The coach did his, too. When his star players stopped scoring midseason, he implemented a system that saw them shut down opponents and ascend to the top of the East.
At some point, the men wearing the red, white and blue must do the job.
The day began ominously with top defenseman Mike Green limping out of the arena after an optional morning skate. He was injured earlier in the series and attempted to play through the suspected left leg injury in Game 3, but was unable to finish the game. Without him, the degree of difficulty grew exponentially.
Still, the Capitals managed to remain within a goal at the start of the third period. But then the “little things” Alzner referred to tripped them up. With Marco Sturm in the penalty box for goaltender interference, Marc-Andre Bergeron ripped a point shot past Michal Neuvirth to put the Lightning ahead, 4-2. In all, Washington took five minors to the Lightning’s three.
“There were just little gaps in 60 minutes of hockey,” Arnott said. “That’s playoffs. Coming into it, we talked about playing a solid 60, not leaving little gaps in our game. And we did.”
Now it’s time for McPhee and ownership to make some difficult decisions regarding the future of this group of players. Because it’s obvious that a shakeup is necessary.