Thursday, April 29, 2010

Caps Season Over; Habs Move On To Take On Pittsburgh In Round 2

I'd be lying if I said I too wasn't disappointed in the way the Capitals season ended. I am. I, like most Caps fans had higher expectations this year. However, I am also a "glass is half full" guy by nature and I cannot understand when fans get truly depressed after a loss. After all watching hockey or any sport is entertainment to me. Following a team and being a fan of them is an avocation. When I switched from being a life-long Flyers fan to being a Caps fan after the so called "lockout" and became a Capitals season ticket holder in 2006 the Capitals were not the local sensation they are today. They were in the early stages of re-building the franchise, something they did and did well as evidenced by the last three seasons results and the fact that now and going forward, any season that doesn't end with the Caps at least getting to the Stanley Cup finals will be considered disappointing to us all - players, management, and fan base.

That's really how it ought to be, isn't it? Life as a DC Hockey fan now, is not like it was in 2008 when we were just glad to make the playoffs. After all the team we get to watch all season long is an excellent and strong team. In 2009 we were all happy the team made it to the second round of the playoffs before being knocked off by the eventual Cup winner. This year, 2010, was supposed to be "our" year in every one's mind. The team played with purpose throughout the season. They made a set of trade deadline moves that showed they would have the depth needed to make a deep run in the playoffs. They finished the regular season with the best record in the NHL. The list of "goods" and "rights" goes on and on.

So what happened? Well they ran into the Montreal Canadiens that's what. The Canadiens finished the season sliding but with a talented team and a 2-1-1 regular season record and they matched up well against the Capitals. I felt many folks on both teams raised their game as you need your team to do in the playoffs. However a couple of things happened that are obvious in the many accounts, recaps, etc. you'll read that derailed the chances of Capitals this post season:

#1 has to be where did the league's best power play go? The Canadiens' penalty kill unit was very effective. Effective enough that the lack of productivity from the Capitals power play probably cost the Caps a goal a game on average. Given that 4 of the 7 games were one goal games and 3 of the 4 Canadien wins were by one goal, this is something that has to be considered as or more significant to the Caps fortunes as the absolutely super-human play of Canadien goaltender Jaroslav Halak in the 4 Canadien Wins.

#2 has to be the stellar play of Canadien goaltender Jaroslav Halak. The Canadiens won games 1, 5, 6, and 7 with Halak in the net. In game 1, Halak stopped 45 of 47 shots and had a SV% of 0.9574. In game 5, Halak stopped 37 of 38 shots on goal and had a SV% of 0.9737. For game 6, Halak turned in an other-worldly performance stopping 53 of 54 shots on goal for a SV% of 0.9815. Last night in game 7, he continued to come up big and power his team to victory stopping 41 of 42 shots on goal for a SV% of 0.9762. Overall in the four victories Halak had a SV% of 0.9779. Through the full series Halak appeared in 6 games, has allowed 14 Goals Against on 231 shots on goal, a 2.46 GAA and had a SV% of 0.939. My point - Halak was good, but during the Canadien victories, he was better than great.

#3 has to be the way the Canadiens' team defense was able to limit the scoring chances, though not necessarily the shots on goal by the Capitals. In combination with the great play they got from Jaroslav Halak, the Canadiens defense was generally able to keep the Caps from having more than one forward in or around the net at any point in time during the 4 games they won. This made it hard for the Caps to break through the wall that Halak was putting up to them during those games.

#4 the match-ups and how the Caps did or didn't respond. This morning there are numerous calls through the blogsphere for various players, coaches and management's heads. All of which in my opinion are totally reactionary and unjustified. There are all sorts of statements about how the Caps fell to a vastly inferior Montreal team and I'm not convinced that's at all right. Montreal underachieved throughout the regular season and they've matched up well against the Capitals all season. As we all saw there are many talented players on the Canadiens and whatever they did or didn't do in the regular season, they ALL raised the level of their play throughout the playoffs. There are calls that Coach Boudreau's system is wrong, R.J. Umberger was right, etc. To me that wasn't and is not the problem. The Caps have "grit" players on their roster and like the finesse players some did and some did not raise their games sufficiently to win. That's a sad but true statement. I have my opinions on the match-ups. While I think I'm pretty much on record clearly that I think the Capitals should have played a more physical game across the board in all seven games, especially in the first two periods. I just feel the Caps did not use their size advantage enough throughout the series and part of that was because of the lineup and line match ups. Sure part of it is "the Caps system", part of it is "the new NHL", though the officiating in this regard continues to be inconsistently applied, etc. All that said, I'm not sure any of that would have mattered, particularly in games 5, 6, and 7 because of items #1 and #2 above.

I had the interesting experience of sitting in front of Carolina Hurricanes Right Wing Erik Cole last night who was at the game with his wife sitting next to Joe Corvo's wife. (BTW Erik, sorry again about spilling the water on you during the "wave" your bride was attempting to start.) Cole made several interesting comments but the most telling and noteworthy was a head shaking thought about how "Now every icing will be an adventure ... put your goaltender back in the net ... (head shaking) ... this is the best power play in the league." Cole was basically talking to himself but I was thinking similar thoughts during the game's final minutes when the Caps had the power play and couldn't/didn't tie it up to force overtime.

What this all means I haven't figured out. Where do the Caps go from here? Thankfully others get paid to figure that out, I'm pretty sure we all want me to focus on my day job and leave that to George McPhee and Bruce Boudreau. I have faith in them, they will figure it out. As others have pointed out, Bruce Boudreau has a 0.701 winning percentage in the regular season, he's a true student of the game. I contend, it's a game that is evolving and changing, it's no longer a game about "piss and vinegar" even in the playoffs. Bottom line is like others, sure I'm very disappointed, sure some changes need to be made, I'm an optimist and believe this team is close, very close. Minor adjustments and changes need to be made. Sure I'm a blogger and I'll think about and put those musings up here but look around the Eastern Conference. all top three seeds are now cleaning out their lockers. The Sabres and the Devils both are supposedly "defensive" minded/focused teams with big name goalies, etc. Their season, like the Capitals is over. Are their fans calling for everyone's heads? I'm really asking I didn't bother to go look through the blogshpere about that.

Right now though I know I'm rooting for Montreal in their next series. I'm also thankful to the Capitals players, the coaching staff, and the management for another season of great hockey. It didn't end like we all wanted. We have next year to make adjustments and make sure it ends better. In the meantime, we do have some good things to look back on and build upon. I just wanted to end by saying thank you for 89 games of excitement and entertainment.

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