The Washington Capitals have made an annual tradition out of raising the hopes of their fans and city, only to be defeated in devastating fashion by what appeared to be an inferior opponent.
Last year, the Montreal Canadiens stormed back from a three-games-to-one series deficit to win their Quarterfinal bout with the Caps in seven games. That was heartbreaking because Washington held the first seed in the Eastern Conference, but as surprising as it may sound, this year’s playoff exit was just as gut-wrenching.
This season’s Semifinal loss to Tampa Bay was almost unwatchable by series’ end for Capitals fans. The disbelief in the eyes of Capitals’ faithful as the final seconds of the season ticked away was only exceeded by the utter bewilderment on the faces of the Washington players and coaching staff.
It isn’t so much that Washington failed to advance to the Conference Finals as much as it was the way in which they lost to the Lightning. After the series moved to Tampa Bay with the Bolts up two games to none, at no point did Washington appear poised to take control, or even win a game.
Even during game three, with the Caps leading 3-2 after two periods, the Lightning never appeared to believe they’d lose. The defense-first system that Bruce Boudreau and the Capitals became known for as the 2010-11 season went on, vanished. The Capitals’ blueline was sliced and diced by Tampa’s quick, hard-working forwards, and the Caps’ offense was nullified by a big, tough Lightning defense corps. On top of that, journeyman Dwayne Roloson outplayed rookie Michal Neuvirth in each game, making things even more difficult for Washington.
Virtually every member of the Capitals could have contributed more, but one player who I believe can hold his head high is the one who will probably take the most criticism for the loss. Alexander Ovechkin showed up to play, and contributed in every way that’s expected of him. He scored goals, he set up plays, drew penalties and laid big hits on the opposition, but it wasn’t enough.
While Washington had one of their best players performing to the level that’s expected of them, the Lightning had at least five. Up front, Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier and Steven Stamkos all played exceptionally, and Eric Brewer and Victor Hedman shut down the talented Washington offense. Washington’s other high-paid players like Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, Mike Green and Jason Arnott all left a lot to be desired by the time the series had ended.
Green was clearly injured, and played very well against the Rangers in the first round, so he should be given at least somewhat of a pass for his performance. However, Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin are simply too talented to disappear for an entire series like they did against the Lightning.
Sure, Semin scored a nice goal in game one, but when the series was essentially on the line in game three, Semin vanished. On a late powerplay, with Washington in need of a goal, Semin missed the net twice and fired another shot straight into a sprawled out Tampa Bay penalty killer.
Backstrom was even worse, considering what’s expected of him. Semin is counted upon to score bushels of goals, but is known to disappear for extended periods of time. He is what he is, a sublimely talented yet enigmatic goal scorer. However, Backstrom has been a model of consistency for the Capitals over the last four seasons, minus the 2010-11 campaign.
The young Swede had the worst regular season of his career, but still managed to put up 65 points in 77 games. If he’d produced at anywhere close to that rate in the playoffs he would have tripled his measly output of two points in nine games. More importantly, Backstrom’s plus-minus was even for the first time in his career, regular season or playoffs, illustrating how poorly his line played defensively.
Now that the series is over, once again all the Capitals can do is look to the future, and plan their next run at Lord Stanley’s chalice. The first question being asked is whether coach Bruce Boudreau will be back next season, but who’s to say that’s the answer to the Capitals’ struggles.
A look around the NHL shows that coaching changes among winning teams yields mixed results. In San Jose, the Sharks fired coach Ron Wilson after four straight seasons ending in either Conference Final or Semifinal losses. Since then, the Sharks have yet to advance to a Stanley Cup Finals, though they’ve improved their roster drastically by adding Dany Heatley.
However, in Pittsburgh and Chicago, the Penguins and ‘Hawks fired their coaches before winning Stanley Cups within two seasons. So there’s no easy answer to the question of whether Boudreau should be back, but assuming he is, where will the Capitals make significant changes?
One area that seems untouchable is in between the pipes, as Michal Neuvirth played reasonably well all season, and Braden Holtby is a blue-chip goaltending prospect. Semyon Varlamov appears to be looking towards the KHL for next season, so Holtby will likely make the jump to the big club from Hershey.
On the blueline, the Capitals face some difficult decisions. The first is whether to sign Scott Hannan, who will be an unrestricted free agent. After making over $4 million last season, he will have to take a sizable pay cut to stay in the nation’s capital. The one signing that is imperative for the Capitals is Karl Alzner. Alzner was one half of the Caps’ top pairing on the back end, and as a restricted free agent, he will undoubtedly be back.
Up front are where the real questions arise. First of all, the Capitals have a slew of forwards whose contracts expire at season’s end, such as Brooks Laich, Jason Arnott, Marco Sturm, Matt Bradley and Boyd Gordon.
Laich has to be the top priority, because he is one of Washington’s most valuable players, and is a spiritual leader in the locker room. One has to assume that Laich wants to be back, but he will have other offers. He wants to win, which is good for the Capitals because most other contenders won’t be able to offer him much more than what Washington will.
Arnott could be back at a lower price, but whether George McPhee and the Caps management will want him back remains to be seen. Gordon will probably be back, as he assumed the role of the team’s faceoff ace after David Steckel was traded.
As far as trades go, the prime target has to be Alexander Semin. Semin had another inconsistent season and playoff, complete with dazzling goals and catastrophic mental lapses. With highly regarded Russian forward prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov almost surely joining the Capitals next season, Semin’s days in Washington may be numbered. Simply put, the Capitals could put the $6.7 million that Semin’s owed for next season to better use.
While it will be a long summer before the Capitals take the ice again, it’s an opportunity to build upon this season, and make the adjustments to their roster that they see fit. This offseason will likely determine whether Washington can finally make good on their promise and advance past the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 1998.