The 2010-2011 Washington Capitals season ended Wednesday night as the Tampa Bay Lightning defeated them 5-3 and completed the series in a 4-0 sweep. The stark difference between the Capitals’ dominance toward the end of the season and the first round, and the complete breakdown in the second round raises a number of questions about the team, and musters a need for further changes for the Capitals.
It seemed as though the tough regular season for the Caps would have prepared them for moments like this during the playoffs. During the regular season, the Caps had their share of adversity. After starting the season with a few winning streaks here and there, the eight-game losing streak that became their initial storyline in HBO’s 24/7 Road to the Winter Classic mini-series came and put the Caps’ playoff chances in jeopardy. This stretch lasted through a majority of the season, and only until just after the trade deadline did the Capitals have any consistent success. There, they climbed from the fourth seed all the way to take the top seed from the Philadelphia Flyers.
One would have assumed that the Caps had dealt with all the problems a team goes through early on in the year and that they finally “peaked” at the right time during the season. They got things together just in time for the playoffs, but couldn’t sustain it.
“It’s hard not to hang your head after being swept,” said Mike Knuble. “We battled. We had a lot of ups and downs this year. Telling us to walk out with our chins up and that’s very, very difficult to do. It’s a tough time in your life as a hockey player, that’s for sure.”
Washington was heavily favored in this series with the Lightning, and many, including myself, had them finishing the series in six games. After all, in the last series against the New York Rangers, the Capitals seemed as though they finally figured out how to win in the playoffs. To be able to break through a defensively strong team and win games, the double overtime comeback victory in Game 4, and the complete shutdown at home in Game 5, were all signs of a team that was going to see sustained success in the playoffs.
Then Tampa Bay came to Washington to play Game 1 in Round 2 with one day of rest to the Caps’ five days. The Caps started slowly and lost Game 1, but many expected them to come back and show up in Game 2.
The Caps never showed up though. They hardly made adjustments from game to game, and the only time they seemed to “bring it” was in the beginning of the third period of Game 4, down by only one goal. Even after the sudden burst of energy there from the team, the Caps still ended up giving up two goals early in the final period of their season and lost any chance of coming back.
What went wrong?
Strategically, the culprit was Tampa Bay’s 1-3-1 trap defense, which was almost identical to the trap that the Montreal Canadiens used against Washington last year. Even though the Rangers were one of the better defensive teams during the year and were shot blocking kings, the style differed from this particular defense from the Lightning and Canadiens.
This formation involved the Tampa defense to sit back and wait for the Caps to enter the zone, only to block all opportunities from the Caps, and force them to go back and chase pucks from neutral zone on.
The fact that the Capitals were virtually immobile in the Lightning’s zone certainly didn’t help in getting any quality shots on Dwayne Roloson. The difference between last year’s exit and this year’s was that last year, at least Washington had the offense, or at least offensive swagger to push the series to seven games — and that was with a hot goalie in net for the Habs. With the offensive drive of the Capitals’ game lacking now, they were unable to remain competitive against the Lightning and lost in four games.
Brooks Laich stated the tone of the series as a whole, saying, “I thought there were games or portions of games where we outplayed them. But you’re not judged by your intentions at this time of the year, you’re judged by your results.”
What was even more confusing was that the Caps’ defense failed completely, and many of the Bolts’ goals came when Neuvirth was exposed while his defensemen were standing around, also immobile. They say defense wins championships, and the Caps had a solid defense and goaltender coming into the series, but without an offense with the players on their team, it’s hard to strictly hold to those words. Especially when the defense fails. Washington’s usual ability to “shape-shift” their game to adjust to “find ways to win” did not happen here in this series and so the lack of versatility definitely hurt them.
“If you can jump on a team early and try and put them behind the eight-ball, that’s important for your team’s morale, and to set them back and try to take crowds out of it — a lot of little things.” said Karl Alzner.
“We talked about it,” Laich continued about the team’s failings. “We pushed at the starts of games. We had chances. We tried, but they managed to get that goal. We’ve come from behind before; that’s not ideal. But we’re still comfortable coming from behind. But when you keep doing it repeatedly I think you’re playing with fire.”
In a postmortem conference with the Capitals Thursday afternoon, general manager George McPhee commented on Boudreau’s status with the team as of now, saying, “I expect him to be back. He’s a good coach.” While I argue Boudreau was heavily outcoached in the two Caps’ series losses the past two years, Boudreau has continued to try to make adjustments to help improve the team, so it would not hurt the team to keep him. (Mike Colligan today did a piece earlier today on the proper perspective in handling Boudreau after this season.)
The players, as always, have expressed interest in working toward next season being more successful than the past year. Jason Arnott, a free agent at the end of this year, said, “Absolutely. It would be my first choice to come back and win here.” Whether that actually happens will be determined soon.
Would things be better if just one time, the Caps didn’t win the Southeast, or didn’t top the Eastern Conference? Is it the pressure of finishing first in the regular season too much? Will they ever be able to break the curse of the trap in the playoffs? Whatever the issue is, it will need to be solved soon. In Caps’ owner Ted Leonsis’ “plan” toward winning the Stanley Cup, Washington is now in year seven, but the clock is ticking and the window is getting smaller. The Capitals’ faithful are right to lose patience at this performance.
Leonsis apologized to fans, saying he was so sorry that the team as a whole let them down this year. The only solution to this is for the Capitals players and front office is to keep winning the Cup next year as their top priority. Right about now, the team will have to take a step back to take two steps forward.