Saying goodbye to the Heart Attack Caps
I have not had DVR for very long but I can assure you that probably never again will I delete something as fast as I deleted Saturday’s Game 7 between the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers.
It was an extremely disappointing end to a strange season that saw a coach fired, a system change on the fly, an up-and-down regular season, the rise of a 3rd string goalie, a stirring upset over the defending Stanley Cup champs and finally, a similarly stirring, but heartbreaking second round ouster.
As a fan, any Game 7 loss brings with it a crushing sense of finality. Your team battles and battles and battles to get to one winner-take-all game and they lay an egg and lose it. And that's it. Your season is over. As a Capitals fan, lord knows I’m used to it. They are 3-8 lifetime in game sevens.
The feeling after this one was odder than other Caps losses in Game 7. I was proud of the team for how they battled all playoffs long, showing a heart and resilience that many did not think they had. This team showed a lot of guts playing a hard fought seven game series with the defending champs (Boston) and the Eastern Conference’s best team (Rangers).
And yet, as there always seems to be with the Caps, there’s always a sense of “what if?”
What if Troy Brouwer doesn’t miss a wide open chance in the Game 3 triple overtime loss?
What if Alex Ovechkin doesn’t ding the post in that same triple overtime game?
What if the Caps brought the effort they showed in Game 6, where they kicked the Rangers' ass up and down the ice, to Game 7, where they looked tired and lethargic?
And, biggest of all, what if Joel Ward doesn’t take that ill-fated high-sticking penalty that ended up costing the Caps Game 5?
That last one will be the killer. Less than 30 seconds left when Ward takes that penalty, giving the Rangers, who had pulled their goaltender, a 6-on-4 advantage. When New York’s Brad Richards scored with seven seconds left, I think every Caps fan in the world knew what would happen next: the Rangers were going to score, probably on that same power play, which of course they did.
Yes, the Caps won Game 6 with probably their most complete game of the playoffs, but Game 5 slipping away is what will be remembered. It was right there, and the Caps, as they so often have before, snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Many of us older Caps fans, myself included, have come to the realization that we’ll be in our graves before the Caps win the Cup.
And realistically, I’ve come to terms with that. Not that I don’t want them to win, of course I want them to win the Cup, but that after all these years of watching them break our hearts in every way imaginable, well, we’ve grown a little cynical.
Not that I’m complaining about this team, which I personally had given up for dead more than once this year. They kept coming back in the face of adversity, winning four times after overtime losses. Prior Caps teams would have folded after the devastating triple overtime loss, much less the kick in the nards that was Game 5.
Quite frankly, this club was playing with house money by Game 5 of the Boston series. Yes, it would have been nice if they had put up a better effort in Game 7, but, as I once predicted, they did not go out easy. That’s a credit to Dale Hunter, who instilled an accountability and sacrifice into this team. As was their wont all year, they never made it easy on themselves, losing the aforementioned four overtime games and having 13 of their 14 games be decided by one goal, hence my nickname of the Heart Attack Caps.
And yet, there’s a sense that, as stirring as this playoff run was at times, the Caps are no better or closer than they were last year, when they were swept in the second round by Tampa Bay. Were they that much better under Hunter than under his predecessor, Bruce Boudreau? More competitive? Yes. Tougher to play against? Yes. Better? Questionable. And thus ends my Donald Rumsfeld impression.
So now, we do some bulletpoints to close out another Caps season…
• This year I’ve had two sports moments where I will always remember how close my team was to winning and then blowing it. In January, there was Lee Evans’ dropped pass in the AFC Championship game. And now, there is Ward’s errant high stick. Thinking about both makes me sadder than listening to Morrissey albums.
• The big news after the series was the abrupt departure of Hunter, who was on a one-year deal this year and declined to come back. I was surprised that Hunter walked away from the Caps because it seemed the guys had bought in around playoff time. Hunter wasn’t perfect, his lineup management, from Alex Ovechkin’s much-ballyhooed cut minutes to Keith Aucoin’s power play time, Dmitry Orlov’s benching and Ward being out on the ice late in Game 5, was iffy at best. But he was able to instill a sense of discipline in this team. He got them to play like Dale Hunter the player. Was he the best coach for this club moving forward? Who knows. We won’t get to find out.
• It seems we have also seen the last of Alexander Semin in a Washington Capitals uniform. The man known as Sasha actually played well under Hunter. He played hard along the boards, was a threat to score a good deal of the time and seemed to buy into playing a solid, two-way game. But this wasn’t unexpected. Sasha could probably use the change of scenery and the Caps could probably use not having him around to drive fans and management insane with his inconsistent play. It reminds me of a lesser version of when Jamal Lewis left the Ravens – it was just time.
• Wither Mike Green? Will the Caps bring him back next year? I actually thought Greenie played better as the playoffs rolled along, paired with the veteran Roman Hamrlik. But he just came off a season where he was almost invisible offensively and was hurt again. At this point, it’s almost impossible to count on Green being healthy for 82 games, or even 62 games. That said, if he were willing to take a short term deal for not huge money, I’d be willing to have him back.
• Dennis Wideman, on the other hand, should be allowed to go anywhere but D.C. again next year. It’s almost impossible to quantify how bad Wideman was in the playoffs this year. He was just dreadful, a turnover or bad pinch waiting to happen. Young Orlov should have been put in his place this playoffs – Hunter didn’t put him in because he didn’t trust him – and should be in there next season. Wideman should be someone else’s problem next year.
• Evgeni Kuznetsov, a Caps prospect who is pretty much the best hockey player not in the NHL, sure would have looked good in Caps red, white and blue next year. Alas, he’s staying in Russia for two more years. The Caps really could use his offensive flair.
• It is positively imperative that General Manager George McPhee improves this team up the middle this offseason. A second line center after Nicklas Backstrom was a weak spot yet again. The club wants Marcus Johansson to fill that role, but his best play this postseason was as a wing on Backstrom’s line. It’s iffy if he’ll ever develop offensively. If McPhee goes another year without this team getting stronger up the middle, it will be another year of Ovechkin and Backstrom’s prime wasted.
• Who will be suiting up for the Caps come October? Ovechkin and Backstrom are givens with their decade-long contracts. Brooks Laich is also aboard for five more years, and Ward has three more years left on what still looks like an albatross contract, Ward’s heroics in Game 7 of the Boston series notwithstanding. Up front, Jay Beagle emerged as a shutdown centerman and Jason Chimera, Troy Brouwer and Matt Hendricks are blood-and-guts types that I’ll have on my club any day. Orlov, John Carlson and Karl Alzner should anchor the D for the next half decade. After that, your guess is as good as mine.
• Oh, and lest I forget, we found ourselves a goalie this postseason. Needless to say, the net in D.C. should be Braden Holtby’s for a long time. The kid can give up a goal or two, sure. But he’s unflappable in there, and his cool rubs off on the whole club. Plus, his pre and in-game OCD routine is ridiculously quirky. The only way Holtby is seeing Hershey again is if he wants to ride the Superduperlooper. Michal Neuvirth, who battled injury late in the season, is a very capable backup.
Until next time Caps fans. This season has been fun, thrilling and taken at least three years off my life.