2018 Stanley Cup Champions


Posted in Alexander Ovechkin, Stanley Cup, Uncategorized | Comments Off on 2018 Stanley Cup Champions

George McPhee Was Mostly the Architect of an Identity Crisis

Cup'pa JoeIt wasn’t supposed to end like this.

Ten years ago, gifted by the draft lottery gods, and with a young but battle-tested general manager presiding over a roster rebuild he’d already appropriately earned plaudits for, the Washington Capitals were supposed to be at the dawn of a period of unprecedented prosperity.

I remember like it was yesterday the vibrant brilliance of early spring in downtown Washington on Monday, April 5, 2004. It was toward the back of lunch hour that extraordinary afternoon that the rumblings of the then relatively primitive Capitals Internet community first erupted: the Capitals, somewhat against the odds, had won the Entry Draft lottery in New York that morning. They would draft first, before any other club, and realize in the payoff something they’d never before had — a franchise defining and altering talent, Alexander Ovechkin.

That April we the ice-impassioned in this town were still a small and very niche band. Hockey here was a garage band drowned out by U2 playing at FedEx Field. The momentous moment of April 5 wouldn’t lead any of the local newscasts that evening, but we few who suffered through not just George McPhee’s necessary tear-down of the Capitals of 2002-04 but our Loserville Legacy of 30 years . . . finally . . . had . . . redemption. I was a DraftGeek in those days, and I knew not only what Ovechkin meant as a talent but more importantly what he would mean to a franchise of perennial  disappointment and with a perpetual identity crisis in its hometown.

At long last, I email-screamed to my mates, we finally have our Gretzky, our LemieuxHe’s that much of a difference-maker. He’s going to change the way hockey is viewed in this town, I alleged. In our collective giddiness we puckheads shopped for Russian beer, fancied hordes of johnny come lately broadcast news outlets jockeying for positions by the plexiglass, and imagined keys to the city dispensed to our guys, and eventually, ultimately . . . a parade planned.

Ten years later, almost to the week, the Capitals, without a single second-round playoff victory to their credit during the Era of Ovechkin, find themselves instead in a competitive death spiral.

* * * * *

It’s not just that 2013-14 was a disaster, oh so difficult and dull to watch five-on-five. It’s that the franchise has been trending down for years, unabated, durable prosperity now well in the rear view mirror. In February 2013, when OFB was still active but increasingly fomenting discontent, and with the Caps looking grotesque out of the gate in a lockout-shortened season, I wrote here that management ought to set about a badly needed rebuild. The days of dominating the Southeast were dwindling; realignment portended a heavy reckoning. The Young Gun core wasn’t getting it done, Ovechkin was approaching the back nine of his career, and ever-present roster holes weren’t getting plugged by the GM. Worse, there seemed nothing in the way of a defining ethos for George McPhee’s hockey clubs, year in and year out.

The pain of management’s orchestrating a restart could have been fairly short-lived, I alleged: Kuznetsov and Forsberg were in the pipeline, young Holtby had high-end skill and competitive fire and swagger, and Seth Jones was there come June for the taking. Cup clubs are built from the goal out, up the middle. Not out on the wings.

Some weeks later George McPhee, in job-saving desperation the likes of which I’d never before observed from him, dealt Filip Forsberg to Nashville for washed up Martin Erat. It was my opinion then and remains so now that that was a fireable offense. The move sapped what little enthusiasm I had remaining for closely following this franchise. Had Ted Leonsis fired McPhee 30 minutes after that deal was made, for cause, I think managers in Boston and Chicago and Pittsburgh and Detroit would have said, Hey, there actually is accountability in Washington, at long last.

This past weekend I took note of how universally it was said that not only shouldn’t McPhee have made the Erat deal but how it represented precisely the sort of deal he characteristically shunned: no high-end prospects more or less straight up for geezing vets bereft of any notable production, orchestrated from a posture of vulnerability.

But what of deals the most often over-cautious McPhee failed to make? Here there is heavy reckoning, too.

Late in winter 2009 the Caps and Pens were vying for conference supremacy, and Pittsburgh, in deals perhaps as much about shielding talent from Washington as about improving its own roster, dispatched middle round picks for Hal Gill and Bill Guerin. A big bodied shutdown D and a playoff savvy power forward. Both players were key leadership figures for the Pens Cup run that spring, and we can’t help but wonder the outcome of that spring’s Eastern conference semi-final had those players been in our colors instead. The asking prices for them surely weren’t bluechips.

This morning the Grand Design of the past 10 years, undertaken and presided over uniquely by George McPhee, reeks of failure. I credit the owner Saturday for his press conference candor: Yes he’s sold lots of t-shirts and jerseys, yes his attendance and renewal rates have been beautiful, he intimated, but Mission Critical — what ultimately matters — again this season was a failure, and its prospects immediately ahead look grim. And because of this, the owner over the weekend cleaned house. Belatedly but appropriately.

* * * * *

McPheeThere’s spectacular irony in George McPhee’s spectacular crash and burn here. If you had to hand-pick one former big leaguer to build and mold, year in and year out, an NHL roster fit for battle — especially in spring — necessarily you’d choose George. He was a highly skilled, Hobey Baker winner at Bowling Green, but to earn his dinner in hockey after college he had to play the role of 4th line agitator and brute on and off Broadway, with the Rangers and Devils. He did that with courage and distinction. Upon retiring he earned a law degree to better his management prospects, then was mentored in Vancouver by Pat Quinn, an ’80s and ’90s hockey management icon.

And yet the toughest roster McPhee presided over here was 1997-98’s — assembled principally by his predecessor, David Poile. Thereafter: a slow if unsteady diminution into perimeter finesse, power forwards yielding to petite playmakers, Langway, Stevens, Tinordi and Reekie replaced by Brian Pothier, Jeff Schultz, Mike Green, Tom Poti, Dennis Wideman, Jack Hillen . . . Connor Carrick. Possession and perimeter.

It was all well and good from October til April while lodged in hockey’s greatest welfare state, the Southeast division. No sport, I’ve long maintained, changes as drastically from regular season to postseason as does the NHL. Initially we locals consoled ourselves in spring’s annual reckoning with prattle of hot goalies and bad breaks, eventually settling upon an indictment of Bruce Boudreau’s Harlem Globetrotters approach. But the reality was George McPhee truly didn’t know, year to year, what kind of identity he was assembling. Or even if there was going to be one. Something about the post left wing lock/trap ennui of the ’90s and early 2000s seemingly established in McPhee’s thinking that his guys, often smaller of stature, sometimes quicker of skate, could hold onto the puck, find seams through which to score, and simply outscore. Eventually, though, they couldn’t even hold onto the puck.

With each passing year glaring deficiencies remained unaddressed, Band-aids positioned, fingers crossed. No match for the cauldron of the NHL in spring.

I really do believe that ownership and McPhee and all levels of Capitals management these past 10 years simply got swept up in the hype they created. They loved having the rock star — rather than, say, Patrice Bergeron or Willie Mitchell. It seemed too good a story not to come true. ‘Building the nation’s hockey capital.’ The slogans were so slick, the marketing so clever. They just forgot to address what matters most in our sport. ‘I really like this hockey club‘ [from you know who] . . . [regurgitate, rinse, and repeat each September]

What I despise most about the past 10 years of spectacularly wasted opportunity — and there will be books written about this organization wasting the transcendent talent of Alex Ovechkin — is that George McPhee’s Caps never gave us what ought to have been a baseline trait: The Caps of the past 10 years hardly ever made you pay a price — in the corners, when liberties were taken with front-line talent, especially in front of the crease. McPhee’s Caps were never constructed to be tough to play against.

And this beget what came to be known as Capitals Country Club. Accountability was short, Georgetown and Arlington bar tabs long. Followed by a carousel of head coaches and systems experimentation. No discernible identity crafted or cultivated. The window for viable contention — if it ever genuinely existed — closed long ago.

To state the obvious, the Capitals are not winning the Stanley Cup in 2014-15. They are not a player or two away. They first need a brand new management regime — one which first needs to identify an identity for this organization and then draft and build to it. But the new manager must also tackle something far larger than merely the identity of the on-ice product: he must endeavor to blow up a spectacularly dysfunctional culture.

I wish him luck.

Posted in Alexander Ovechkin, David Poile, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Filip Forsberg, Front Office, George McPhee, Martin Erat, Morning cup-a-joe, National Hockey League, Seth Jones, Southeast Division, The curse of Washington hockey, The Great Old Patrick Division, Washington Capitals, Washington the cursed hockey town, Washington the hockey town | 8 Comments

So Where Are These Guys?

Hello All,

We’ve been on hiatus since the playoffs for a variety of reasons (including a few folks’ relocations to new cities). We’ll still be active via Twitter and — when the spirit moves one of us — post on the OFB site. But our days of game-by-game coverage are behind us. It’s been a fun seven years (!), and readers like you are the reason we’ve kept at it even this long.

Rest assured, we remain fervent supporters of our Washington Capitals, and appreciate all the opportunities this labor of love has provided. The Caps should be grateful to have the best fan base and blogging community in the NHL. We’ll still chime in now and then… we may not be writing regularly anymore, but our hearts remain with this team and its fans.

Let’s Go Caps!


The OFB Team


Posted in Washington Capitals | 13 Comments

Hockey: The Mixed Martial Arts of Curling

John Hodgman has a little fun with our favorite sport in his new comedy special “RAGNAROK”, which debuted on Netflix today:

Posted in Washington Capitals | Tagged | 1 Comment

La Canfora Unloads, Again

Former Washington Post Capitals reporter Jason La Canfora was back on 106.7 the Fan today, ostensibly to discuss his present beat, the NFL, but studio host Danny Rouhier, to his credit, had his guest weigh in on the latest Capitals’ collapse. Dan Steinberg has a full reckoning of the segment here, and it’s stunning in its candor and the scope of its condemnation. You can listen to the actual audio here.

La Canfora

Choice excerpts:

  • La Canfora, on Martin Erat: ” . . . the trade for Erat? I mean, is that gonna pay any dividends? He was a passenger when he was healthy. You traded a top prospect for that?”
  • “I don’t really know what their identity is [emphasis OFB’s]. You’re just constantly swapping out goaltenders, you’re constantly swapping out coaches, and you’re not really changing your culture or changing your locker room or making your team any more difficult to face in the playoffs. I mean, it kind of blows my mind. They’ve been NO more difficult to face in the playoffs for how long has Ted owned the team? They went to the Finals in ’98; you can go back to ’99 and they’re kind-of sort-of the same team.”
  • On the Ovechkin captaincy: “Clearly there’s something wrong there and something adrift,” he said. “I think you look at how you they put their team together, and who is the team captain. If your team captain isn’t really a team captain, then is there a covert team captain, a guy who actually can keep him in check in the locker room?”
  • ” . . . every year it’s just ‘Ooh, a bad break here, and oh darn, we hit a post, and otherwise we’d be hoisting another Stanley Cup . . . They’re nowhere near [winning a Cup] . . . And we’ll see when these divisions change how it works out for them. But they had a gift for whatever — eight or ten years — of playing in this division with a bunch of teams that fiscally just couldn’t or wouldn’t compete. And it’s resulted in what? A couple of playoff round wins, and that’s about it. So I don’t know. I would say that’s pretty disappointing.”
Posted in 106.7 the Fan, Alexander Ovechkin, Dan Steinberg, Danny Rouhier, Jason La Canfora, Media, Radio, Washington Post | 6 Comments

Managing, and Excusing, the Ever Repeating Loop of Mediocrity

Cup'pa Joe

“I hope the Caps win a Stanley Cup before I’m dead.” — Kevin Fletcher, age 7, Alexandria, Virginia, earlier this week, relayed by his father on Facebook.

The definition of precocious there.

Good luck with that, Kevin.

This Henrik Lundqvist offered to the Washington Post deep into Monday night: “The great thing is we managed to win the series without playing our absolute best.”

If that doesn’t frighten you about the present and future of the Washington Capitals, nothing will. Lundqvist was commendably frank and spot on: His Rangers club, one that had to especially scratch and claw its way — utilizing the final hours of the NHL regular season — merely to qualify for the postseason, could best the Caps without home ice while receiving AWOL performances from its biggest stars: Rick Nash, Brad Richards, Ryan Callahan. Captain Callahan, a likely leader for the American entry in next year’s Olympics, tallied his first goal of the series in Monday night’s third period of what was already a blowout by the visitors.

They were able to do this because third-liner Derick Brassard — a virtual throw-in in the deal that sent Marian Gaborik to Columbus — outscored the Capitals’ first line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Marcus Johansson.

So it’s come to this: A 6 seed in the East can bring its B game and better our Beasts of the Southeast. Again. Funny to think that a mere two weeks ago there was haughty talk about town of taking it to Pittsburgh this spring. The Washington Post’s Tom Boswell addressed this line of thinking Wednesday morning in an evisceration of the organization I’ll be quoting liberally this morning: “what universe are they living in?”

What the Rangers did to succeed — box it in tight, hurl bodies hundreds of times in front of pucks, make life in front of the net miserable (aka HockeyUgly, which in the NHL postseason is quite beautiful), patiently counter-punch — was strikingly similar to what the 8th-seeded Habs did to D.C. in round one of 2010. A bit of a broken record, wouldn’t you say? The names of the coaches here have changed, a few of the names of the perimeter players have changed, but the maestro remains. Convene the premature end-of-season presser, ladle out the excuses, rinse, repeat.

The early excuses this offseason got a bit creative, and included a conspiracy theory against the Caps articulated by the team captain, heretofore believed to have appreciably matured during this abbreviated season. The GM, for good measure, more or less sided with him. Coach Tortorella, exercising the vanquisher’s prerogative, gazed upon Washington’s fourth or fifth alleged scandal of intrigue this spring and mocked.

I will, without tinfoil cap, weigh in on the series’ officiating: it fairly sucked. It had curious, sustained periods of utterly aberrational one-sided-ness. Then again, this is the NHL. But we deserve better from our captain — in performance and reflection — and I think Tortorella’s not being entirely petty when he suggests that the Caps’ focus on the zebras distracts somewhat from the larger mission.

Moreover, the Capitals have earned the disrespect they perceive to receive from the league when moments get big. They’re legacy recipients of dissing. When the Pittsburgh Penguins have queer arena bookings in spring, it’s the Capitals who are asked to accommodate (jeopardizing their competitive integrity in the process). When the league expands to the American Southeast, the Capitals are cherry-picked to join the newcomers, watering down well developed Mid-Atlantic rivalries and neutering the appeal of the home slate. Remember three years back when the 2011 Winter Classic was announced, and how Mr. Leonsis made a point of boasting that he had extracted from the league “a promise” to bring that game to D.C., and in short order? Well four years later there will be six outdoor NHL games contested next season, and not only won’t the Capitals be hosting one, they won’t be playing in any of them.

Until they prove otherwise, the Capitals — for good reason — are viewed by the league as Small Timey, an entity that can be trifled with. And when you have two faces of organizational leadership proffer conspiracy theories in postseason pressers, that only reinforces Small Timey sensibilities. Respect in this league isn’t easily earned; going on 40 seasons in the NHL the Capitals most assuredly haven’t earned it.

I have a ton of respect for the heroic Boston Bruins this spring, and even greater appreciation for what Monday night’s miracle likely meant to that sports-mad city this particular spring. Being in Verizon Center Monday night, I was unable to view Boston’s unprecedented, unfathomable third period comeback in that game 7. I saw the hero goals when I got home. With Rask pulled and less than 2 minutes remaining, the immovable Milan Lucic made it 4-3, swatting home a rebound from about 18 inches out in front of the Leaf cage. The tying goal came some 30 seconds later, with the equally immovable Chara serving as a crease screen for Patrice Bergeron. Intriguing strategy in desperation moments of a postseason, crashing the net with brute brawn. Be nice if that was tried in D.C. one of these years.

Very interesting sidebar to that Boston Miracle: After game 6 Sunday night the Bruins learned that their charter home was sidelined with mechanical issues. That’s no time for serious travel woes. Recall the Capitals’ travel travails in the leadup to game 5 of their 2010 series with Montreal (Fog-gate). The Bs on Sunday quickly decided to make a restful night of it in Toronto and travel home the next morning. The Caps of course opted to leave their players on a stranded jet for hours and ultimately deliver them home around 5 a.m., subsequently missing out on a practice with that series’ momentum swiftly altered. Winning organizations, I posit, win for reasons large and small.

In the early hours of yet another colossal Capitals collapse, however, some influential natives aren’t stomaching the annual double-speak, sophistry, and — again quoting Boz, “delusional denial” — coming out of Kettler. Boz, in fact, led the wood-shedding Wednesday:

“When you have a general manager who has been in his job 16 years but hasn’t been to the Stanley Cup finals since his first year and that GM builds teams designed to win in the regular season and fill up the rink for his boss but not to weather the demands of the playoffs, why would you think he’s going to win it all?

“When you have a star who was made captain not because he deserved it but in the hopes that it would prod him to get in better shape, cut down his carousing and show some leadership, why be shocked when he scores fewer goals (one) in a first-round exit than Rangers fourth-liner Arron Asham?

Clever artwork by Jamie Mottram

Clever artwork by Jamie Mottram

Interesting themes there, no? How many GMs in contemporary pro sports avoid a pink slip over a decade-and-a-half plus without ever achieving anything? And the matter of the fraudulent captaincy rises again. Mere weeks ago we were supposed to believe that running roughshod over the Southleast — earning yet another Trophy for Trying banner — was vindication. Boz has something to say about this, too: “it’s the soft Southeast Division universe, a kind of parallel world where you play pigeons all season, then meet birds of prey in May. Next year, the Caps will fight for a playoff spot against the Pens, Flyers, Rangers, Isles, Devils, Columbus and the ’Canes. Life is about to get a lot harder.” It is indeed.

Already of course the team is pitching optimism for next season: Laich and Erat (would you do that trade again?) will be healthy, the blueline is solidified in a comparative sense (compared to the previous 8-10 seasons), Oates is a fine coach, and he gets Ovi and Ovi gets him. But every spring reveals essential flaws that architect McPhee can’t or won’t acknowledge. Marcus Johansson is a really nice kid, a wonderful skater, and he works really hard, but he is not an elite talent. Wonderful passes come his way from across the ice and most often they die on his blade. In this organization he skates on the top line. John Erskine again had a season whose sum was greater than his component parts, but he is not a top 4 blueliner in this league. But he is on this team.

The Capitals lose when it matters not because of conspiracies against them but precisely because of how they’re assembled. And perpetual losing when it matters, which is this organization’s legacy, is an added burden every rendition in red skates with, no matter how spiritedly they suggest otherwise. That plays a part in their choking away so many game 7s, so many sizable series leads. The region now has red-clad 7-year-olds who know this.

Here’s the Post’s Mike Wise cutting to the chase: “Taught early in this business to root for good stories instead of teams, I nonetheless feel the Capitals are annually telling me what they keep telling their emotionally beaten-down fans: Don’t get your hopes too high because we’ll eventually dredge out your aortic valve with a backhoe.”

Posted in Alexander Ovechkin, Front Office, George McPhee, Marcus Johansson, Martin Erat, Media, Morning cup-a-joe, Much-needed realignment, New York Rangers, NHL referees, playoff hockey, Print, Southeast Division, Ted Leonsis, Thomas Boswell, Washington Capitals, Washington Post, Washington the cursed hockey town, Winter Classic | 8 Comments

Common Theme in Caps’ Watershed Moments This Season: Pittsburgh

The Capitals’ first season under Coach Adam Oates has come to a close, and it’s fascinating to see the storyline that took this team from ugly beginning to ugly end—with a lot of magnificent moments in between, and some positive takeaways and question marks for the future.

Actually, this season’s story began even earlier, according to Brooks Laich’s chronology, with the thread of accountability—no player mattering more than anyone else—reaching back to Dale Hunter’s regime.  By the time the Capitals had a chance to build on that team concept come January 2013, however, there even more elements to figure out: a new coaching staff, a new system, a shortened season.

And it wasn’t pretty, as the Capitals found themselves in last place.

“When we weren’t winning, when we weren’t doing things well early on in the year, we weren’t as much of a team as we needed to be, off the ice and on the ice,” Laich said of the early part of the season.

Appropriately enough, the perennial villain for Washington fans, the Penguins, was the one who gave the story a turn, if by no other virtue than where the Pens fell on the NHL schedule.

Laich calls the day after the loss to Pittsburgh that put the team at 2-8-1 “a big day for this organization.”

“For our group of guys, there was a lot of stuff that was addressed on that day, and what was said and who said it is best left behind scenes, but that was a big day, and from there, we turned things around,” Laich says.

But this was no wave-the-magic-wand-and-go-to-the-ball turnaround. They won three games, then sputtered. Yet Oates, or, as Jay Beagle says, “Oatsey,” stayed positive through the entire roller coaster that was this season, surprising all the players with how he handled said roller coaster. Beagle mentioned he’d show players some positive video clips after a loss, which the forward says not many coaches do.

The team hit another mile marker mile marker when it traveled to Pittsburgh again in March—and lost again, this time 2-1. It was, oddly enough, one of the most fruitful losses in recent memory, as the Capitals followed up with a back-to-back sweep of a division rival, the Winnipeg Jets, also fighting for a spot in the postseason.

“Sometimes you just need a spark, a jolt, and you know, brothers fight a little bit, but at the same time, you’re always on the same side,” Laich says.

From there, the story gets much more rosy for a time. But it’s worth pausing for a moment to note Laich’s “brothers” analogy, because it’s the same one Adam Oates used at the end of March when questioned about how close the locker room was.

And it’s usually not in a Hallmark card “we love each other like brothers” way—it’s used to show that squabbles happen, but in the end, the name on the front of the jersey is the same.

“They seem very close. … I also think they’re family, they’re brothers, so brothers argue too, so there’s days where they’re not close,” was Oates’ quote as his team finally found a groove.

Backtracking a bit, those two games in Winnipeg kicked off in the win-loss column what would become the rejuvenation of the Capitals’ season. It went so well, until a 5-0 loss in Game 7 brought every Capitals fan back to their annual nightmare. Oates said Alex Ovechkin texted him 20 times till 2 a.m. after the Game 7 loss.

And now, the offseason timeline begins far earlier than any Capital would like. For manager and coach, that’s one thing. For the players, it looks different. Oates has, throughout the season, discussed with players how to individually improve their games.  And that’s work they can take with them into the summer.

Beagle, for example, says he’ll try things like bag skating with the puck, and work on handling the puck more on his stick. For the goaltenders, it’s slightly different. Braden Holtby said it’s extremely hard to get “an honest practice” in the offseason, and thus the little intricacies in goaltending are easier worked on in season. The offseason, for him, is more about mental preparation and clearing his head.

Meanwhile, Oates is preaching the Boston Bruins’ recent history to the team—the times the Bruins hadn’t capitalized in their years surrounding the Stanley Cup triumph.

And, mark this quote from Wednesday down for future reference:  “We’re gonna win a Cup here,” Mike Green said.

That timeline has yet to be written.

Posted in Adam Oates, Washington Capitals | 4 Comments

The Excuse That Won’t Hold Water; a Silver Lining; Breaking Down the Broken-Down Defense; And a Lesson in Execution

Sitting, waiting, and waiting at Metro Center for an Orange line train to come and take me home after Monday’s game concluded, I was reminded there are still a few things in Washington less effective than the Capitals offense was that evening. (I also cover politics.)

Some of the best analysis and reflections of what happened in the blowout Game 7, and what went so right and so wrong in the season, will come after the players and coaches talk more extensively to the media on exit day later this week.

Right now, the result produced a cocktail of shock and awe and bitter disappointment in the postgame pressers, which effectively shut down any public in-depth analysis from Adam Oates and company Monday.

But when you lose an elimination game 5-0, there’s a lot of analyzing to do.

There was, indeed, an exquisite performance by the Rangers’ goaltender to consider.  He gave the Capitals nothing on 35 shots.

But, frankly, I don’t buy Lundqvist-stopped-the-kitchen-sink a good enough excuse for the Capitals losing. It’s not like Henrik Lundqvist being good is a huge shock. You know that going into the series. Your gameplan needs to be equipped to beat Lundqvist on his best day.  Yes, accomplishing that may be akin to trying to get Kate Moss to eat, but, as Joel Ward pointed out recently, Lundqvist is a human, just like everyone else. So it’s possible to succeed against him.

In fact, Mike Green said after Monday’s game that when the Capitals stuck to their strategy, that’s when they found that success, and that “at times, we kind of got away from that [our discussions of how to beat him].”

So where Lundqvist really won was his execution was better than the entire Washington roster. Whether that’s because of will, or mental fortitude, or his experience, or coaching or training or that “x” factor that makes him Henrik Lundqvist, that’s something for a longer discussion this summer.

I don’t think this execution drum  is a nuanced difference, though, and it’s helpful when considering what the Capitals need to get themselves over this playoff stonewall.  You may have the perfect gameplan and all the answers, but if you can’t execute it, you’ll always be sitting at home far earlier than you planned.

“We knew what we were supposed to do. We couldn’t just quite do it. And that’s a tough thing, tough pill to swallow, when you know how to beat a team, you just can’t quite get it,” Alzner said in general of the Capitals’ execution.

Of course, all this doesn’t explain the 5 goals at the other end that the Capitals gave up.

Gone was the tight defense that the Capitals displayed in games 1, 2 and 5.  The second line, meanwhile, was on the ice for three goals against.  Two of those were with the defensive pairing of Erskine and Carlson. Mike Green was on the ice for three goals against (though the first one, to be fair, was kind of a bad slate of luck as some Capitals players took untimely tumbles to the ice outside of their zone, which meant Washington was woefully out of position). Mike Ribeiro was on the ice for four goals against.

The silver lining? Steve Oleksy was not on the ice for a single goal against in the elimination game.  And he was the only defenseman to achieve that Monday.  That is the definition of keeper.

Perhaps he should have received more ice time—as it was, he was second-to-last in ice time among defensmen. Compare that to Jack Hillen, who played 44 fewer seconds than Oleksy yet was on the ice for two goals against.

In Washington’s net, meanwhile, Braden Holtby did not look anywhere close to his normal self. He got absolutely no help from his defense. But he also didn’t really help them out much, either, compared to what he’s capable of.  Don’t tell that to the locker room, though. Karl Alzner and Troy Brouwer were having none of it.

“We gave up 2-on-1s, we gave up breakaways, we gave up odd-man rushes. We can’t expect him to save ‘em all,” Brouwer said. “He’s been unbelievable all season long.”

“We had the goaltending to go far,” Alzner said.

That’s so positive, sooo back to the offense.

I know the Capitals’ top players are going to receive a lot of heat for not getting on the scoreboard in Game 7. I get that. At the same time, I’d point out that the Rangers’ biggest offensive stars (Brad Richards, Rick Nash and Derek Stepan) didn’t score goals either Monday, and the team managed to net 5. Nash got an assist on the third goal, and that was it. So there are still ways to win sans top scorer domination, though Nicklas Backstrom called his own [presumably offensive] effort “embarrassing” in the series.

In the end, a lot of things had to go wrong simultaneous for such a drastic dip in performance by the Capitals. And there will be plenty of time to discuss it in the coming days. Right now, if you’re a Capital, it just feels like Cinderella had her glass shoe run over by the pumpkin carriage.

Posted in Washington Capitals | 12 Comments

Time For The Stars To Shine

Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkinin Moscow 2007These two men are the key to tonight’s game.

I took this photo in Moscow almost exactly six years ago; Russia had just defeated Sweden for the Bronze at the IIHF World Championships. More excitingly for Capitals fans, news had just broken that Backstrom would be joining the Capitals in the upcoming season, so we asked the pair to pose as “new” teammates for the first time.

Backstrom’s immediate contributions the following Fall delighted Caps fans almost as much as Ovechkin’s debut did. The Capitals had found their best center since the days when Coach Oates wore a jersey. The future of this center-winger combination seemed limitless.

Of course, that has not translated to post-season success—at least, not on the level one expects from such talent. Now, six years after they first became teammates, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom have a chance to shine, in another Game 7 against a familiar opponent.

And shine they must, if the Capitals are to move on.

Obviously no two players can do it alone. The rest of the team must find that sweet spot: being aggressive, but not reckless, while patiently executing Coach Oates’ game plan. Braden Holtby must continue his stellar play. The team needs the discipline to commit fewer penalties (and hope for a balanced game from the men in stripes). They must do those little things, like crashing the net, that make all the difference.

But the team’s captain and his pivot can, and must, put so much pressure on the Rangers that the blueshirts are gasping their way to the locker room between periods.

Even if King Henrik manages to keep Ovechkin and Backstrom off the score sheet again, the pair needs to be so dominant that the exhausted Rangers start making mental mistakes… mistakes of the two-minute penalty variety. Mistakes that create openings for the rest of the Capitals.

Mistakes that lose hockey games.

So there can be no coasting around the edges; no putting the difficult pretty plays ahead of the high-percentage ugly ones. Tonight’s game is an opportunity for this uber-skilled pair to show their mettle and flat-out dominate on the ice.

Then, if the Capitals succeed, it starts all over again… but for now, for tonight, all those “one game at a time” and “it’s a one-game series” cliches ring true. And Ovechkin and Backstrom must lead the way.

Posted in Adam Oates, Alexander Ovechkin, New York Rangers, NHL, Nicklas Backstrom | 12 Comments

Blueprint Emerging?

Joel Ward has basically played the equivalent of one power play with some change this postseason on the Capitals’ man advantage.

His presence on the Capitals’ first power play of Friday’s game, however, was exactly what the team needed to break through an otherwise impenetrable Henrik Lundqvist. Eleven seconds of power play time, and Ward had the Capitals’ first and only goal in regulation Friday.

“No, my name was called,” Ward said when asked if Oates gave any explanation to him for putting him on during the man-advantage. “And I just went out there. I was excited to be out there, and I just tried to pay attention to details and get in my spot.”

What’s equally interesting, however, is how the Capitals got the power play. They crashed the net, and in the ensuing scrum, Brian Boyle got frustrated and took a slashing penalty.

Maybe they should look more into this crashing the net theme.

Ward and Mathieu Perreault, in fact—two bottom-six forwards—are now tied for the most points out of all Capitals forwards this postseason, with four each. Another third liner, Jason Chimera, is not far behind, and that’s after he struggled offensively for much of the season.

What does the third line seem to have figured out?

“We don’t sell ourselves short. Obviously, there’s other guys on the team that make big plays, but we just worry about ourselves. We’re not worried about who we’re playing against, or who we’re matched up against,” Ward said.

Perreault’s answer is balm for hockey purists: they throw a lot of pucks on net, they crash the net, try to create traffic.

The other Capital tied with Perreault and Ward for most points is defenseman Mike Green. Occasionally, those shots from the point will be perfectly placed or too difficult for a goalie to track in traffic. Other times, the puck will mange to find its way to the back of the net amidst the scrum of skates, helmets, jerseys and limbs flying in front. Everything in between, Lundqvist usually stops.

Mike Ribeiro had the last laugh on everyone Friday, however, when he scored the game winner for the Capitals in overtime. It’s the teams’ second overtime of the series.

Conditioning wise, Nicklas Backstrom said he thought the Capitals looked good and that it looked like the team had a lot of energy.

It’s going to be interesting to see if Washington can swing this momentum to a Game 6 closeout in the Rangers’ home building.

Posted in 2 Points | 4 Comments