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The Washington Capitals playoff debacle shows a focus on defense is not always the guaranteed answer

There is no doubt that teams generally need to play well defensively to win four rounds in the Stanley Cup playoffs.  But it’s really a combination of things that usually make the difference.  If a team receives superb goaltending, that’s a huge step.  If they finish their checks and cut down on turnovers, all the better.

Teams that dig down to win more key face-offs than they lose generally do well at this time of year, as do those who are tough along the boards and in the corners.

I suppose if you play a  stifling trap system, or whatever it is that Boucher has concocted in Tampa Bay, you may well advance, too.

None of this is new information, of course.  It’s the same every spring.  “Who wants it more” is the old line, but it tends to ring true.

As Wayne Gretzky has said, though, the one thing that beats hard work is talent and hard work.

Yes, at the end of the day, your talent has to score some goals, or all of the above just might be wasted.

I guess I write this because I’m reflecting a bit, as an old-time hockey fan, as the now annual post-mortem continues regarding "what happened to the Washington Capitals". 

They were doormats not that many years ago, but of course Ovechkin, Semin, Backstrom, Green and a new energetic coach in Boudreau seemed to be the ticket.  Suddenly they were an elite team, and just as suddenly, were expected to be serious contenders for the Stanley Cup.  In fact, they were expected to win one by now.

But again this spring, they came up short.  Well short.

After last year the solution seemed to be that the Caps needed to start playing better defensively, just like the other top contenders.  This revelation seemed to come after the somewhat shocking loss in April of 2010 to the suddenly hot Halak and the Habs.  They couldn’t score, but the answer seemed to be (or so they thought, at least) to foccus on defense in order to win in the playoffs- just like almost everyone else.

The 2010-’11 regular season  was about learning to buy into Boudreau’s new “system”, and winning by playing better defense.  The result was a much more boring Caps team, Ovechkin scoring a career low number of goals (31, was it?) and …yet another early playoff exit—four straight, in fact, against the, we all guessed it, defensively responsible Lightning.

What’s the moral of my story?

I don’t really know.  Maybe it’s just because I am one of those who really don’t like the trap, or whatever people want to call it.  I respect the success of the New Jersey Devils but don’t like some of what they created starting back in the mid-1990s. This mentality of constantly suppressing the other team’s attack is  successfu, obviously, but painfully dull to watch.

Yes, at the professional level winning is “everything”, but I loved watching the Capitals when they were the young, mobile, high-scoring, exciting Caps. 

The end result this year was the same, despite their dedication to defensive play.  And this was a team with heart and soul leaders like Arnott and Knuble, in addition to good young goalies and all that explosive talent.

In baseball, the old saying is that “great pitching shuts down great hitting”.  And stifling defensive hockey tends to shut down high-powered stars, too.

I’d just rather the Caps, if they’re going to lose anyway (and hey, I realize that sometimes you just get beat...), go back from now on to play more of a fire-wagon style all year long, and then, as the situation demands, evolve as required in the playoffs.

They couldn’t do any worse.



  1. I think you may mis-read things a tad on this one.

    Ovechkin's career low in goals had nothing to do with changed systems particularly. In the first half of the season he was shooting at a ridiculously low percentage, largely due to his play at home.

    This posting by Gabe at indicates that as of Jan. 15th 2011, he had scored on 2 shots out of 122 on the Road, while at Home he was scoring at a fairly normal (for him) 12 for 140 rate at home. That's 1.6% shooting on the road vs. 8.6% at home. His career shooting percentage is 11.9%, and this year he posted a career low 8.7% shooting percentage.

    He fired 1 less shot on goal this season, and scored 18 fewer goals. That isn't something that makes a lot of sense on any front other than crap luck. From the Jan 15th point on, his goal totals on the Road increased dramatically, and he ended up with 12 goals out of only 69 shots to close the season (that's 17.4%) while at Home he scored 6 more goals on 36 shots (16.7%). His seasonal SH% went up from 6.1% to finish at 8.9%.

    In the games immediately following Gabe's posting, he had 4 goals and 6 points (including a hat trick) in his next 4 games. In the playoffs he scored 5 goals and he had 10 points in the playoffs. He had 2 goals and 4 points in 4 games vs. TB.

    Meanwhile TB's top scorers Stamkos (2 goals, 0 assists, and -1 in 4 games vs. Washington), Marty St. Louis (2 goals, 5 points, -2), and Vincent Lecavalier (3 goals, 6 points, +3) weren't ridiculously out playing Ovechkin.

    I think the lesser lights producing for TB, and the fact that the likes of Backstrom and Semin again failed to produce in the playoffs (0 goals, 1 assist for Backstrom, 1 goal, 1 assist for Semin) has a lot more to do with their problems.

    They also had little to no secondary scoring... that doesn't help much. Blaming Ovechkin's lack of regular season production for making the team boring is a bit odd to me.

    They weren't particularly boring to watch, and they won most of their games in the regular season. They just couldn't produce enough offense in the 2nd round of the playoffs to beat a TB team that's playing very well right now and is getting hot goaltending.

    Coming up against a lucky/hot goalie 2 years in a row is a lot more of the reason they've been eliminated than anything inherently flawed in the franchise.

    The San Jose Sharks haven't made the Stanley Cup finals EVER, but they've been in the playoffs in 12 of the previous 13 seasons. They've won 40+ games in 9 of the last 10 seasons. They've won 48 or more games in all of the previous 5 seasons. They also haven't significantly altered the team's make up, and I don't think anyone is going to accuse them of being particularly boring if they get eliminated.

    Sometimes shit happens in the playoffs... c'est la vie... if the Caps stick it out they have a decent chance to be successful in the future.

  2. SBurtch...Always well-thought out. Thanks.

  3. I DON'T respect the Devils achievements. Boring hockey is boring. Period.

    Playing of Burtch's comment, though, I wonder if unbalanced scoring (i.e. 2 or 3 superstars and no secondary scoring) is easier to stop in a playoff than more balanced production? If so, that'd be bad news for the current incarnation of the Leafs, because our D and 3rd & 4th lines have not been putting up a whole lot of points (and don't say Dion will pick it up - it has to be more than just a few people, that's the whole point).

  4. Wan Iwhite...Good observation. The notion of unblanced scoring has, in my memory, always been an important one at playoff time.

    Going back to the '60s, for example, I well remember that the Hawks were always an elite regular-season team, yet earned "only" one Stanley Cup. Opposing teams would aim to shut down Bobby Hull as best they could (Detroit and Montreal were particularly successful) and while the Hawks had some fine "lesser-lights", they lost in the playoffs every year but 1961.

    As for the Leafs, I would venture to say even their so-called front-line scoring is unproven in the playoffs, much less the team's third and fourth lines. They haven't faced the kind of defensive tactics so apparent in today's game at playoff time.

  5. Call the penalties the same in the playoffs as they do in the regular season and the outcome is completely different. 2 sets of rules for the different seasons