By Thomas Boswell,
Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi bends Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin over backwards during the second period .
This is the ritual day of rage when those who love the Washington Capitals scream at the skies, rend their red garments and curse the hockey gods. Or at least say bad things about Alex Ovechkin, George McPhee and Ted Leonsis until they cool off for a few months, then re-up for more Rock the Red fantasies about Lord Stanley’s ever-receding Cup.
For the Caps themselves, this is the hour of ritual rationalization, excuse-making and wagon-circling. It’s the time for talk of “lucky bounces” and a Rangers defense that was “allowed to do anything.” In the worst blame shirking, it’s the day for Ovechkin to insinuate without any evidence that the referees or the NHL itself shafted the Caps to get a profitable Game 7.
For the rest of us, who like the Caps but don’t find them as essential as air, this is the day to shake our heads in sympathy with the sufferers and double-take in disbelief at the Caps’ capacity for delusional denial.
When you have an owner who acts like a teddy bear, who wants to be loved by his players and who talks tough only when somebody criticizes his beloved employees, what do you expect? His years of country-club attitude create the atmosphere where Ovechkin can embarrass the NHL and the Caps by telling a Russian reporter, “The refereeing . . . how can there be no penalties at all [on one team] during the playoffs? I am not saying there was a phone call from [the league], but someone just wanted Game 7. For the ratings. The lockout . . . the league needs to make profit.” (What, no KGB?)
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?
The Caps’ spring collapses are seldom seen clearly by their faithful followers because that’s just what they are: faithful followers. Bless ’em.
But when they see a path to the finals that may go through the Rangers, Bruins and Penguins, and then say, “That’s do-able,” what universe are they living in?
Actually, 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.
That’s saying plenty, because Monday night’s Game 7 was absolutely brutal for anyone with Cup-half-full love-the-Caps dreams.
They just lost because the Rangers were better — more in control of their emotions, better in goal, more precise and intelligent in their execution, tougher in front of both nets and four times as willing to accept the pain of diving in front of a whistling puck to block a shot.
At Verizon Center, supposedly home ice, the Caps had their worst defeat of the entire season — yes, their first five-goal loss. The Caps managed only one regulation goal in their final three games combined.
Perhaps the worst news is that the Caps were, once again, bewildered afterward. The franchise has now lost a playoff series in which it led by two games an unbelievable nine times. The scene afterward is doubly painful because the Caps almost never have a clear sense of what happened to them.
“The Rangers must have blocked a hundred shots. It was crazy how well they kept us on the outside,” veteran Eric Fehr said. “They do a good job of it, and they are allowed to do a very good job . . . Holding and pushing, they are allowed to do pretty much whatever they wanted to do in front of the net.
“They want to sit in the box and block shots. We couldn’t get a lead and get them out of their shell. Lundqvist made a few saves here and there. But their defense made the saves for them.”
The Caps’ funeral room is now an annual visit like a wake: a mix of sadness, what-might-have-been and the self-delusion that may be a requirement to play such a painful, disfiguring sport.
“I thought we absolutely outplayed them at times, most of the time. It’s tough to swallow, really is,” defenseman Mike Green said. “This was the best team, as a team, that we’ve had. Depth, coaching, structure, system, we had it. But things happen. This result doesn’t reflect how bad we wanted it.”
Rookie Coach Adam Oates has been a bright spot, rousing his team from a 2-8-1 start to an 11-1-1 finish and a No. 3 seed. He has reached Ovechkin, who led the NHL in goals again. But he suffers from Capsitis, too.
“They got a lucky one, and after that, everything seemed to go their way,” Oates said. “When you start leaking oil, it’s hard.”
In response to various queries, he said, “We did a pretty good job . . . We had our best start in five games . . . We’ll address that next year . . . Ask in a couple of days.”
Unfortunately, that has been the Caps’ response to playoff losses since Biblical times, when they blew a two-game lead to the Pharisees.
For the Caps, the future looks mediocre. There won’t be any more discount-bin Southeast Division Champion banners, like the ones for the past six seasons that hang in the Phone Booth rafters. Their mid-season rebound insures that Oates and McPhee will be back. The improved play of Ovechkin and Green gives them value, but neither will regain past peak performances. The central team personalities will remain in place.
Where does this team get better? Not in goal, where Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth make a combined $4.35 million per season through 2014-15 and continue to be pretty good. Nicklas Backstrom has never been the same scoring threat since his concussion. Mike Ribeiro wanted to get an extension in season, but didn’t. So he may leave. The list of decent players unlikely to get better but certain to be a year older is as long and somber as Oates’s face.
On Wednesday, the Caps will have their clean-out-the-lockers Breakdown Day. As is custom, the bright side will be highlighted, embellished. The Caps will continue to be the Caps, their value marked to a theoretical model in ownership’s mind, not to the harsh market testing of actual results.
If you are one of the thousands who do care deeply about the Caps, but are tired of postseason losses followed by excuses, unlucky bounces, bad refs, conspiracies and happy talk about Next Year, then you know the Caps already have had their annual Break Down Day.
It was Monday.
For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns go to washingtonpost.com/boswell.