Thursday, May 5, 2011

Leash the Fury

Summer has come early again for Washington Capitals fans.  Despite the 25% increase in playoff victories this spring versus last year (2010 – 3 wins, 2011 – 4 wins), the golf courses will be teeming with Ovechkin jerseys and Happy Gilmore wanna-bes this Mother’s Day weekend.  It was not supposed to happen this way.

My son is becoming used to Capitals playoff disappointment at a young age.  Last year’s bitter Game 7 choke at the hands of Le Habs brought tears and sniffles.  This year’s Caps’ whimper in the semi-finals only reddened his eyes for a few brief moments.  By the time they lose early in the playoffs next year, Thomas will barely register an audible ‘harumpf’.  He is learning, the DC way.
Growing up as a NY Ranger fan, I never had the experience of high expectations being dashed in the NHL playoffs.  I had no expectations.  When you listen year after year to the derisive chant of “1940” (the last year before 1994 that the Rangers had won the Stanley Cup), the scar tissue builds up pretty thick.  As the old saying goes, “There’s no crying in the blue seats”.  Combine the Ranger fan experience with a few seasons of 1970s NY Mets baseball, and disappointment becomes part of the DNA. 
But this isn’t NY.  This is Washington, where loudly blaming someone or something for our personal pain is the number one spectator sport in the stadium, on the rink or in the bowels of Congress.  I watched all or part of close to 70 Capitals games this season, so I do have an opinion on what is wrong with a team that has earned the #1 seed two consecutive seasons and flamed out pretty dramatically in the early playoff rounds.  I am ready to assign blame.

I blame OV…and Semin…and Boudreau…and their relative youth and inexperience…and bad bounces…but mostly OV.

Let’s take a look at my runners up for the Blame Award:

Bad bounces:  Green scored on his own goal with a shot off his skate.  Scott Hannan had a beautiful tip in goal – against his own team.  Backstrom missed two easy goals – that just bounced over his blade.  These are poor excuses for games they still should have won, but I mention them because that’s playoff hockey.  One or two bad bounces can mean the difference between a sweep and a 7 game series.

Youth and inexperience: Carlson did not look as confident on the blue line as he was during the regular season, when his name was in the mix for the Calder Trophy.  Marcus Johansson had a great series against NY, then disappeared against the Lightning.  Neuvirth is basically a rookie (who played as well as you could expect, and then some).  But face it – this team could still be a year or two away.

Semin:  Great individual skill with the puck is fun to watch, but whenever I fan on a shot, I call it a “Semin”.  If the Caps go on the PK in the 3rd period, it’s a 50-50 proposition that it was a Semin hook or Semin hold in the neutral zone.  I think it’s time to trade him for some real value.  Less flash, more substance would serve them better in May and June.

Boudreau:  He deserves praise for changing the style of this team from run-and-gun to defensive minded in less than a season, while still earning the top seed in the East.  That’s pretty amazing.  Now, if Boudreau is the one telling Semin and Ovechkin to shoot every time they touch the puck, then I blame Bruce.  If it is Bruce not making the proper adjustments against a trapping style defense for the 2nd straight year, I blame Bruce.  I have to admit, it is hard to overlook the last 4 years of playoff futility and not question the man at the top.  If Scotty Bowman is interested and still lucid, let’s find him.

OV:  Here is what I see from Ovechkin: poor puck management.  He cannot control the puck consistently.  The King of the Overskate.  No doubt that he can be a highlight reel machine, a one man army.  I do not question his effort or his commitment to winning.  I was glad to see his individual production down this season as the team continued to roll up points.  I thought he was learning to share the wealth, sacrifice for the team defense, act as a decoy if it helped the Caps win.  When the chips are down, however, he tries to do too much, and the team suffers.
Truth be told, I’d rather have Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Zetterburg or (forgive me, my son) Sid the Kid, pre-concussion.  They can control the puck in the offensive zone.  They make the players around them better.  Perhaps OV is told to shoot all the time, and he needs different coaching.  I am open to that; however, when he tries to curl and drag around every defenseman in the league, and it only works 10% of the time, he might want to try to be a bit more creative.

Maybe the team just needed one more painful learning experience to grow towards achieving the ultimate goal – Lord Stanley’s Cup.  At least that is what I am telling my son.

The Caps motto of “Unleash the Fury” has been replaced for the summer with the more popular slogan, “Wait’ll next year”.  At least the Nationals are still in playoff contention.  My son can hold on to that.

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