Thursday, April 29, 2010

Collapse, with a Capital "C"

Top-seeded Washington Capitals knocked out of Stanley Cup playoffs by eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 29, 2010; D01
http://www.washingtonpost.com/


Bruce Boudreau stood behind the bench, staring blankly out at the ice. Alex Ovechkin dropped to one knee, his head bowed.

Moments after the Montreal Canadiens had sealed a 2-1 victory in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, not the coach, not his star player, not the capacity crowd on hand at Verizon Center could believe that a season that began amid hopes of a ticker-tape parade down Pennsylvania Avenue had instead ended in ignominy.

The Washington Capitals, who finished the regular season with a franchise-record 54 wins and 121 points, became the ninth No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 8 seed, but the first to blow a three-games-to-one series lead in the process. The collapse also marked the eighth time the Capitals blew a two-game series lead and the fourth time they surrendered a 3-1 edge.

"I told them I felt exactly like they did," Boudreau said. "I thought we had a good chance to win the Stanley Cup this year. I would have bet my house that they wouldn't have beaten us three games in a row and that we wouldn't have scored only three goals [the past three games]."

WASHINGTON - APRIL 28: Jaroslav Halak(notes) #41 of the Montreal Canadiens reaches to gove a puck against the Washington Capitals in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Verizon Center on April 28, 2010 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Fittingly, the loss came to an end with the Capitals on a power play in which they enjoyed a 6-on-4 advantage with goaltender Semyon Varlamov (14 saves) on the bench. But instead of Washington tying the game, Montreal goalie Jaroslav Halak (41 stops) clamped down and shut out the Capitals' power play for the third consecutive game. The top-ranked unit entering the playoffs, the Ovechkin-led power play finished an astonishing 1 for 33.

"I have nothing to say right now," said Ovechkin, who, like his teammates, is headed home for a long summer, one that begins with more questions than answers.

The Canadiens, meantime, are set to meet Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins in the semifinals starting Friday.

"It really hurts," Eric Fehr said. "We thought we had a really good chance to make a good run. It seemed like we had everything going heading into the playoffs . . . but come playoff time, we couldn't get it all going at the same time."

The Capitals' top-ranked offense, which racked up 313 goals in the regular season and 17 in Games 2-4, mustered a measly three -- total -- in the final three games of this series. Alexander Semin and Mike Green, two of the team's leaders on offense, finished with a combined total of five assists and no goals.

Brooks Laich scored his second goal of the series with 2 minutes 16 seconds left, cutting the Capitals' 2-0 deficit and giving them some semblance of hope. That hope, though, was fleeting.

They were unable to squeeze another puck past Halak, who stopped 131 of the 134 shots he faced in the series' final three games. And what shots he didn't stop found the stick blade or shin pad of one of the Montreal players, who blocked an absurd total of 41 shots (to the Capitals' 11).

"They blocked 41 shots, which I've never seen," Boudreau said.

The final game in a series marked by controversy did not end without one more.

The Capitals thought they had tied the game, 1-1, on a goal by Ovechkin just 24 seconds into the third period. But the apparent goal was immediately waved off by referee Brad Watson, who ruled that Mike Knuble had knocked over Halak in his crease before the shot entered the net.

"It feels like you're whining . . . but that's a pretty tough one to take," Boudreau said. "If Knuble's right foot touched his pad. It looked like it didn't. If it did, it was so light. I thought the puck was in the net before that anyway."

Knuble added: "That's a violation that hasn't been called all year. You haven't seen it all year, and now it comes out in Game 7."

WASHINGTON - APRIL 28: Dominic Moore(notes) #42 of the Montreal Canadiens scores the game winning goal in the third period against the Washington Capitals in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Verizon Center on April 28, 2010 in Washington, DC. The Canadiens defeated the Capitals 2-1. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

The end result, in many ways, seemed incongruous with the Capitals' effort. For long stretches, beginning early on, they seemed to control the game. In all, they outshot the Canadiens by a whopping 26 shots.

They came out strong, taking a 4-0 lead in shots before the game was three minutes old. A few minutes later, Semin hit the post. But the Capitals' fifth shot didn't arrive until the 16-minute mark. And by then, the Canadiens had established themselves as legitimate contenders for an historic upset.

Then the Habs took the lead on during a 4-on-3 advantage. With Brendan Morrison and Tomas Plekanec in the box for roughing, Green was assessed a cross-checking minor while on the attack in the offensive zone.

Only 12 seconds later, Marc-Andre Bergeron drilled a one-timer from Scott Gomez past Varlamov, sending the Canadiens into the second period with a 1-0 lead.

"It wasn't a smart play by Mike," Boudreau said of Green, who took two of the team's four minor infractions.

Gill and the Canadiens made sure the second period ended scoreless. After blocking 12 shots in the first period, the visitors, led by 6-foot-7, 250-pound Gill, blocked 14 more in the second.

"That's playoff hockey," Canadiens Coach Jacques Martin said. "It's a commitment from the players."

After Ovechkin's disallowed goal, the Capitals finished the third period with an 18-5 shot advantage.

Some of that was Halak. Some of that, though, was the inability of Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Semin and Green to finish, despite a total of 23 shots, led by Ovechkin's 10.

"We had some tremendous looks [and] Halak made some great saves," Boudreau said. "His positioning was fabulous. But we had some great looks that we should have been able to put some pucks in the net."

They didn't. And, as a result, these Capitals will be remembered for they failed to accomplish in the playoffs rather than the Presidents' Trophy they claimed for a stellar regular season.

"They are all noted goal scorers," Boudreau said of Ovechkin, Backstrom, Semin and Green. "All four of them were beyond remorse in the dressing room. They cared and they tried. Nobody tried as much as Alex and Nicky. Sometimes you just don't score goals. Sometimes the other team takes you away."


The Great Pretenders

By Mike Wise
The Washington Post
Thursday, April 29, 2010; D01
http://www.washingtonpost.com/


In the end, they teased everyone.

Cruelly.

Their crowd, so emotionally invested after 54 victories and a gaudy 313 goals -- 45 more than any other NHL team between October and the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The hockey establishment, all the smartest and brightest who picked the Capitals to win it all because of how they almost sparkled when they scored, won big and had a penchant for coming back.

Their coach, who arrived from Hershey about 2 1/2 years ago in near disbelief that Alex Ovechkin was suddenly his to groom, along with three other young stars barely old enough to legally drink.

WASHINGTON - APRIL 28: Jaroslav Halak(notes) #41 of the Montreal Canadiens celebrates as Alex Ovechkin(notes) #8 of the Washington Capitals skates away following the Canadiens 2-1 win in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Verizon Center on April 28, 2010 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

The worst part is, the Capitals players had themselves believing they had the team, the talent and enough ornery players to tap in the puck when the supernovas couldn't.

They actually had convinced each other they could bring one of the four North American major team-sport championships to Washington for the first time since the Redskins last won the Super Bowl in 1992.

And they kept the fa├žade going until the very end, managing to ignite a flickering, hope-against-hope crowd. Taking in the jeers and boos after Montreal made it 2-0 in the final three minutes, the Caps narrowed the lead by a goal, furiously trying to force an extra period.

Incredibly, after all of Jaroslav Halak's otherworldly play in net the past three games, they had their chances in the final seconds -- toying with the masses again.

Jason Chimera floated in on the right wing for the tie. Ovie fired away, one last time.

Miss. Nothing.

One and done? Implausibly, almost incomprehensibly, yes.

"If someone came to your work and stepped on your desk or punched you in the head, that's how I feel," said a rocked Chimera, who had overtime on his stick before he lifted the puck over the crossbar in the Caps' last, best chance. "You came for a long playoff run, and it doesn't happen. It's tough. Right now it's weird."

It's not weird; it's wrong.

A flammable goalie is going to get most of the credit for their sudden demise, the first time a No. 8 seed has ever rebounded from a three-games-to-one deficit to knock off a No. 1 seed. But on the night of their worst flameout of the Bruce Boudreau era, the Capitals need to be honest and look beyond the incomparable play of Halak.

Taken out by the team in the playoffs with the worst regular season record cannot just end with, "We ran into a hot goalie. It happens."

Nuh-uh. They don't get off that easy. Not after this series they just threw away.

All the numbers in the world to bolster that claim for the Caps -- how they outshot and outplayed the Canadiens in much of the last two games but just could not solve Halak, who amazingly stopped 131 of his last 134 shots in the series -- don't work Thursday morning.

Shockingly, this Cup-or-bust franchise is now dispersing to different parts of the globe to inexplicably watch the rest of the NHL playoffs.

They need instead to think hard about why such a talented offensive machine, with unquestionably the game's most dynamic player, has now lost three of four Game 7s on its home ice. They need to figure out how a better, stronger unit a year after the Penguins took them out in seven games could not even make it to the second round this season.

Ovechkin, as the captain, needs to call out his countryman, Alexander Semin, now scoreless in his last 14 playoff games. Semin has been mostly a downtrodden drag on and off the ice recently.

Ovie needs to have a real talk with Mike Green, language barrier or not, and say, in no uncertain terms, "You let us down this series. That penalty in the first period led to the first goal for Montreal. There is no excuse for not playing better the past two weeks. No wonder you didn't make the Canadian national team and some people think it's a crime you're a Norris Trophy finalist this season. Your play made them think that way."

They all need to look at the self-inflicted damage that led to this stunning exit in the first round.

Including Boudreau. Let's stop any talk that Gabby should be fired for his team's inability to close out the Canadiens. No one in their right mind should get rid of a savvy, hockey lifer who just guided the Caps to the Presidents' Trophy.

But the coach should ask himself this: Video-game stats and all, can an up-tempo, Disney-on-ice, offensive juggernaut really win in the postseason?

Or are the Caps merely that run-and-gun NBA team -- pick an era with Phoenix, Dallas or Golden State -- that gets clamped down by tougher, more physical teams when it matters?

And when Jacques Marten mucked up the game in the middle of the ice, using that neutral-zone trap to take away the usual choreography and the setting-up of Washington's scoring chances, was there really a Plan B for Boudreau other than "Go to the crease. Make something happen."

Or is that too much amateur Gabby psychology, and does General Manager George McPhee have to answer a few hard ones?

Such as, was this merely the unmasking of the Caps' Achilles' heel all season, its penalty-kill units? No longer able to compensate and hide their deficiencies with their own power-play goals -- the league's most lethal man-up team failed to convert 32 of 33 power-play chances in the series -- they were reduced to what they were: defensively flawed.

The acquisitions of Mike Knuble, Scott Walker, Eric Belanger and Jason Chimera brought depth and grit. But were they enough? Could one Bill Guerin-like player have been better than them all?

Those are hard questions to answer in hindsight, because the Caps had so many golden chances the past two games. If just one of those final shots goes in Wednesday night, they're forcing overtime and sending the Verizon into a tizzy again.

But the results are plain: Semin and Green, who came into the game 0 for their last 55 shots, were bottled up. Ovie was good and great at times, but too often, when he became the focal point of the Canadiens' scheme, no one but Nicklas Backstrom or someone in the crease seemed capable of creating a genuine scoring opportunity. If he doesn't hurry and hoist something besides another Hart Trophy, he's A-Rod or Wilt the Stilt in training, pre-championships.

The Caps were pressing from the beginning, trying anything -- almost in a hurry to get on the board. Until the frantic third period and the desperation that clearly showed, there almost seemed no sense of urgency in the middle of the game.

Midway through the second period, a sort of purgatory had almost set in -- the players trading shifts and sloppy puck-handling -- everyone in limbo, waiting for someone to change the course of the night.

The familiar chant, "Let's Go Caps," started at 10:48 of the second period in section 414. It caught fire momentarily, made its way around the arena once, and then died just as quickly.

The crowd came to life at the outset of the third, standing and hollering in a sustained ovation that was not even prompted by the Jumbotron or the team's marketing department. Authentic hope, finally.

They were ready to believe, for at least 20 more minutes of this once-stupendous season that now closes with such a whimper.

Now, 30 minutes after the end, all that is left is the sound of the Zamboni laboring up ice after the arena has been cleared -- and a teen-ager in Capitals gear cruising behind, stick-handling the puck after the pipes and netting have already been put away.

None of it seems real. This season of infinite hope has expired and it's not even May. As you watch that impressionable kid round the rink before the ice is put away for the summer, the only thought left is this:

They cruelly teased him too.


Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals come up short

By Tracee Hamilton
The Washington Post
Thursday, April 29, 2010; D01
http://www.washingtonpost.com/


Arguably the best hockey player in the world. That phrase is often used to describe Alex Ovechkin. I've used it myself.

But is it true? Can Ovechkin be the greatest player in the world but fail to drag his team out of the first round of the playoffs, against the worst of 16 teams to make the postseason, with the deciding Game 7 on home ice? Can you be the best hockey player in the world if your team underachieves to such a degree? Because Wednesday night's 2-1 loss in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals felt like one of the biggest failures in D.C. sports history.

WASHINGTON - APRIL 28: Jaroslav Halak(notes) #41 of the Montreal Canadiens shakes hands with Alex Ovechkin(notes) #8 of the Washington Capitals following the Canadiens 2-1 win in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Verizon Center on April 28, 2010 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Yes, another year, another Caps season that didn't live to see Memorial Day, Cinco de Mayo or even May Day. Unleash the "choking dogs" jokes; unholster your golf quips. A No. 1 seed had never blown a three-games-to-one lead to a No. 8 seed since the current playoff format was adopted in 1994 -- until Wednesday night.

Was this series a referendum on Ovechkin and his place in the hockey galaxy? The answer is probably yes. When you are so clearly the face of the franchise, and the franchise so clearly fails, what does that say about you?

It hasn't been a great year for the Russian superstar, measuring it with his own gaudy yardstick. He didn't win the scoring title. He had a controversial suspension. At the Olympics in Vancouver, he was a non-factor for the Russian team, which in turn was itself a non-factor.

And then came the playoffs. He led the team with postseason points (10) and assists (5) and tied for the lead in goals (5). But in three of the Caps' four losses of this series, he didn't have a goal -- although that statistic will be argued until the cows come home, or training camp opens, whichever comes first, because an apparent goal at the start of the third period Wednesday night, perhaps his prettiest of the postseason, was waved off because of interference.

But none of that changes the fact that the Caps lost to the Habs. Is that solely Ovechkin's fault? Of course not. But you can't help but notice that his nemesis -- by his own reckoning, not mine -- and the other guy who's often referred to as "arguably the best hockey player in the world," Sidney Crosby, has in the past year won the Stanley Cup, the Olympic gold medal (scoring the game winner in overtime, to boot) and tied for the league lead in goals.

That reads a lot like Ovechkin's to-do list coming into the season. Instead, his season ends with the Presidents' Trophy and little else. I've never seen a player hug the Presidents' Trophy in the back of a limo or bathe a baby in the Presidents' Trophy or take a swig of champagne out of the Presidents' Trophy.

Ovechkin played with fire against the Habs. He got no help from teammate Alexander Semin, who led the team in shots on goal but managed to find the net with nary a one. Mike Green was AWOL for much of the series, and his penalty at the end of the first period Wednesday led to the power-play goal by Marc-Andre Bergeron that all but ended the Caps' season.

I ran into former Detroit Red Wings coach Jacques Demers at Verizon Center on Wednesday night, and he reminded me of something I'd forgotten from my days in Detroit. During the Wings' close-but-no-cigar days, there was talk in Detroit that Steve Yzerman should be traded. The heresy went like this: The Wings would never win a Cup with Yzerman, who was (inarguably, in my opinion) the greatest team captain in sports history.

The Wings didn't listen. Demers made him the youngest captain (21) in team history and the front office surrounded him with talent. Yzerman went on to lead Detroit to three Stanley Cups on the ice -- after Demers was gone, of course -- and a fourth from the front office.

Can Ovechkin have similar success one day? Yzerman was drafted in 1983 and won his first Cup in 1997 -- not a time frame destined to cheer Washington fans, especially this morning. The Wings faced some of the same criticism the Caps are now hearing, specifically, that the team was built for the regular season, not the playoffs. Eventually, that changed.

Ovechkin is a polarizing player in ways Yzerman wasn't. He is brash and bold and would rather spend his $9 million on Dolce and Gabbana than, say, haircuts.

But Yzerman had one advantage over Ovechkin: From the start, he was the ultimate team player. Heck, his nickname was the Captain, a moniker usually reserved for yacht club blowhards and Tennille's musical partner.

Ovechkin, at 24, still has time to grow into the role. I've taken shots at Albert Haynesworth for failing to attend voluntary workouts at Redskins Park during the offseason, but the truth is, Ovechkin often skips the optional workouts as well.

In many ways the two situations are far from comparable. The Redskins' voluntary workouts are during the offseason; the Caps' come amid an 82-game season with grueling travel. The Redskins' season lasts six months, seven at the most. Hockey is eight months, miminum (and I hear it can last nearly 10 months in some places). Haynesworth is in no way regarded as a team leader; Ovechkin is wearing the "C" on his sweater. Ovechkin plays as hard as anyone on the ice; I've seen more knees since Haynesworth arrived in Washington than Flo Ziegfeld.

But the day before Game 7, Ovechkin skipped the optional skate. Nearly everyone else showed up. Semin was also a no-show. One might have thought he could use the practice. One might have thought his captain would tell him so. But it's hard to lead by example when you're not in the building. It's a small thing, but it's not, not in team sports.

Ovechkin is one of the most exciting players in the game today. That is inarguable. He is the future of this franchise, no question. He makes this team go, without a doubt. The question is, go where? For now, the answer is: home.

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