Storming the Crease

Steve O Speak

By Guest Blogger Rob Yunich:

The last postseason meeting between the Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning (in 2003) caused owner Ted Leonsis to launch The Plan — the one that saw he and GM George McPhee tear down the team, draft much of the team’s current roster (starting with Alex Ovechkin) and turn the franchise into what it is today.

But this year’s loss to the Lightning is yet another “aha” moment: one that shows that the current team isn’t built to win a Stanley Cup, the same assessment doled upon the squad eight years ago. They’ve had a ton of regular-season success and Coach Bruce Boudreau has shown that he’s a brilliant tactician. But when it comes to the playoffs, he’s a pedestrian 17-20 — and eight of those wins have come against the New York Rangers.

The team still doesn’t compete for 60 minutes every night, and the phrase “taking the foot off the gas” has been mentioned way too frequently. Championship teams do not stop playing or rest on their laurels with a third-period lead. Look at the Detroit Red Wings, Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks, Anaheim Ducks, Montreal Canadiens, and other recent champions and perennial contenders. They fight tooth and nail no matter what. It was no coincidence that the Pens earned the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference despite playing without Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby for half of the season. That attitude comes from head coach Dan Bylsma, whose all-business approach is reflected in the players that take the ice every night (and was shown vividly on HBO’s “24/7” series).

Against the Lightning, who have become a serious contender for this year’s Cup, the Caps had too many sloppy line changes and didn’t crash the net enough. You make your own luck in the playoffs by constantly being in the right place at the right time. (My blog isn’t named Storming the Crease by accident.) The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and the best way to score in any sport is by being close to the goal (or basket or end zone).

Many Caps simply are unwilling to make the right sacrifices to accomplish this mission on a nightly basis. The problem is that those same Caps are the ones that are the most talented. The poster boy for this argument is Alex Semin, who continually gets salary increases despite repeated playoff disappearances (against everybody except the Rangers, against whom he’s scored eight of his 12 career playoff goals). The term “passenger” has been thrown his way on numerous occasions.

The team’s power play is an utter mess and it’s cost them dearly in the playoffs over the last two years. Against the Canadiens last year and the Lightning this time around, the Caps scored a total of three power play goals (in 52 chances), a 5.7 percent success rate.

The blame for all of this falls on Boudreau and McPhee — who, since joining the franchise in 1997, has seen the Caps win five playoff series — three during the run to the Stanley Cup finals in 1998 (his first season as GM) and two against the Rangers in 2009 and this year). In other series, he’s lost eight times.

The ball is back in Leonsis’ court. He can choose to fire both McPhee and Boudreau — and strongly urge their replacements to rid the roster of certain players (starting with Semin). He can task McPhee to pick a new coach, who can hopefully get the team to play to its insanely high talent level. Or he can keep both in town, and ask them to bring in players who will do anything to win the Cup (and not just say they will).

If the Caps need any inspiration for a smart way to tweak a roster, all they need to do is look at the Lightning. Last summer, the franchise’s ownership hired GM Steve Yzerman and Coach Guy Boucher. The duo promptly traded for or signed players who dedicated themselves to a very selfless approach — and got the team’s top three players (Vincent Lacavalier, Martin St. Louis, and Steven Stamkos) to go full-throttle towards that plan, which includes the 1-3-1 trap that stifled the Caps and Penguins so far this postseason.

Captain Ovechkin is most definitely a team-first guy and there are plenty of others on the roster — including Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, Marcus Johannson, Karl Alzner, Brooks Laich, and Mike Green — who will be back next season and will lead the charge. Semin is signed for next season, but must be moved as he’s become the epitome of what’s ailing the Caps. Others should be on that train out of town, too.

Who is here for the beginning of training camp in September will go a long way towards determining whether the Caps will be in a better position at this time next year. And, if Leonsis heeds the call, then a brighter recap of the 2012 postseason will follow.

You can find more of Rob’s work at Storming the Crease!

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