It happened again. The Washington Capitals lost another disappointing series, early in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Once thought to be a contender on the rise, things have not worked out for the Caps in the post season over the last several years. In fact, they usually bow out early and embarrassingly. Their playoff troubles have become a regularity that embodies their identity.
In 2012-13 it appeared as though the Caps streak of making the playoffs was in serious jeopardy until they salvaged their season with a miraculous 15-2-2 record in their final 19 games. The Washington Capitals have made the playoffs in six straight seasons and not once managed to advance past the 2nd round. Not even by chance or fluke have they played a game in the Eastern Conference Finals over the last half decade in spite of winning the Presidents Trophy in 2009-10 and the Southeast Division in 5 of the last 6 seasons.
Last April, the Capitals started the playoffs as the hottest team in the NHL, an asset that usually bodes well for 1st round teams. In Round 1 the Caps got off to a great start. They took a 2-0 series lead on the New York Rangers, the one team they’ve managed to beat in the playoffs a few times recently. The Caps relented and the Rangers tied the 1st round matchup at 2. All was not lost, the Caps won Game 5, inching one step closer toward another trip to the 2nd round hurdle they hoped to finally overcome. Maybe they looked ahead, or can’t close the deal in big games. Whatever it may be, the Caps choked again, losing Game 6 & 7 without scoring a single goal.
At this point, the Caps are an after thought when analysts and prognosticators select their favourites to win the Stanley Cup. The once mighty, Ovechkin led, promising team from America’s Capital City has lost everyone’s confidence. They did it to themselves with poor on ice performances under the spotlight of post seasons past. When a team suffers years of playoff disappointments a familiar old example is brought up to suggest things could turn around. The Detroit Red Wings of the early 90’s suffered the same sort of regular disappointments in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for about half a decade until they turned it around. You know the rest of that story. The thought Washington may experience a similar transition from bust to playoff beast doesn’t spark the same enthusiasm amongst opinionated hockey folks.
The Pressure Is On Ovechkin
We all know how great Alex Ovechkin is. His individual trophy case and playing credentials are unparalleled by anyone from his era, including Sidney Crosby. Ovechkin is a force. However, at some point, he’ll need to lead his team beyond the 2nd round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Until he improves his ability to win important hockey games, he can outscore Jonathan Toews, Patrice Bergeron, and Sidney Crosby all day, every day. He won’t be a winner and his legacy will always lack that final piece of achievement.
Ovechkin’s legacy aside, his team needs him to be a hero in the Spring. In 58 playoff games the Great 8 has 61 points. He definitely produces in the playoffs but it’s got his team nowhere, thus far. It’s not for lack of trying, either, with Ovie. He comes out storming in playoff elimination games. He throws big hits, shoots the puck from everywhere, and competes with passion. Unfortunately, his regular approach, just doesn’t work in Game 7.
In the 2010 playoffs the Montreal Canadiens figured him out, and television analysts were quick to repeatedly breakdown the Habs’ tactics. Force him to the outside of the ice and let him shoot from there. If his shot isn’t blocked, there is a good chance it will go wide or be stopped. Ovechkin was found out.
Adam Oates Will Improve Ovechkin’s Game
Under Head Coach Adam Oates, the Caps have one of the best thinkers in hockey history developing their strategies now. While the rest of the world begins to write off the Caps as playoff bust, they may actually be on the verge of taking a turn in the right direction. Last season, rookie coach Adam Oates flexed his muscle immediately, moving Ovechkin to the right wing, a position he has never played in his career, both pro and minor league. Remember, in Russia, right handed shots play the LW, and vis versa for lefties. Oates’ decision to flip Alex to the opposite wing was based on his ideology that a player should play his proper side in the defensive zone, enabling him to defend more effectively. It’s that kind of thinking that will help Ovechkin improve his all round game and versatility.
It’s Not Just Ovechkin’s Fault
It’s unfair to place all the blame for recent Caps’ failures on Alex Ovechkin alone. A hockey team consists of 20 player starting lineups. While Alexander The Great will always be the first fall guy, the entire Caps team should do everything in their power to figure out the playoff problem and correct it.
The Road Ahead Is More Difficult For The Caps
Making the playoffs will be more difficult this season for the Washington Capitals. Their incredible run of 5 division titles in 6 years is likely over this season, as they now compete for that distinction with the Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers and New York Islanders. That being said, the Caps can win the Metropolitan. They are a very good regular season team.
Adam Oates will coach his first full season as a lead guy behind an NHL bench this year. In an era where it’s hard to reshape a franchises’ core because of massive contracts, the bulk of the players who will decide the Caps future are already in place. Oates is the deciding factor. The way the Caps finished the season, it looked like Oates was on to something. Maybe the Caps have turned a new corner, and last year’s disappointing 1st round exit was an isolated incident. Over the next several months we will get our answer.