That’s the question being asked by the Washington Capitals, as well as their fans, as the club was swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning in their best-of-7 Eastern Conference semifinal series.
The Capitals entered this series the clear favorites, having finished first in the Eastern Conference in the regular season and fresh off making short work of the New York Rangers in the first round.
Pundits were heralding the Capitals’ new-found commitment to two-way hockey, noting even offensive superstar and team captain Alexander Ovechkin bought into head coach Bruce Boudreau’s mid-season change for a more defensively responsible style.
The Lightning, who finished fifth in the conference regular-season standings, had upset the Pittsburgh Penguins – the Capitals’ arch-rival – in the first round.
True, the Penguins were missing the offensive punch of injured superstars Evgeni Malkin and team captain Sidney Crosby, but were still no pushovers, as witnessed by their taking a 3-1 series lead before the Bolts rallied thanks a 1-3-1 defensive system (considered a version of the dreaded neutral zone trap) and the goaltending of 41-year-old Dwayne Roloson,
Though the Lightning’s upset of the Penguins was impressive, few gave them a chance against a healthier Capitals team.
More importantly, this was a Capitals team believed keen to atone for last year’s disappointing first-round elimination by the upstart Montreal Canadiens, determined to silence the critics and hungry to prove itself a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
The Lightning were expected to put up a good fight, but the consensus had them bowing out in no more than six games.
So how did they do the seemingly unthinkable and sweep the Capitals? How could the Capitals, for the fourth straight year, fail to go deep in the NHL playoffs? How could they lose to a lower playoff seed for the fourth straight year?
It’s not as though the Capitals coaching staff didn’t know what was coming from the Lightning, yet they found themselves struggling against that 1-3-1 defensive system. And while they did out-shoot the Lightning, Roloson was there to thwart most of their best offensive chances.
Boudreau did attempt to shake things up, but his players weren’t as physical or as fast as the Lightning, and he appeared at a loss to address the situation.
It’s fair to criticize Boudreau, but the players deserve the full brunt of the blame.
They failed to stick to the defensive system which worked so well in the second half of the season and against the Rangers in the first round. It also appeared they didn’t take the Lightning seriously, blowing leads and failing to regroup in the face of adversity as the games slipped away.
Roloson was again superb in the Lightning goal, but the Capitals also made it easy for him by failing to generate traffic in front of him on a consistent basis.
The Lightning were, quite simply, the better team and their success was very much a team effort.
Their stars – Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier – stepped up in this series, especially Lecavalier, whom many had written off this season as a game-breaking star.
Little-known (outside of Tampa Bay) forwards Teddy Purcell and Sean Bergenheim came through with clutch offensive play, while Steve Downie showed the hockey world there was more to his game than a history of questionable hits.
Four Tampa Bay forwards – Lecavalier, St. Louis, Downie and Purcell – are currently among this spring’s top 10 playoff scorers.
Veteran forward Ryan Malone, who earned accolades three years ago for playing through pain in helping the Pittsburgh Penguins reach the 2008 Stanley Cup final, displayed that gritty form against Washington.
Dominic Moore, who haunted the Capitals last season with the Canadiens, did it again this spring as part of the Lightning.
Defensemen Eric Brewer and Matthias Ohlund were a steady veteran presence on the Tampa blueline. Along with teammate Brett Clark, they lead all this year’s postseason performers in blocked shots, while young blueliner Victor Hedman sits fifth overall in that category.
Not even the loss of veteran winger Simon Gagne to a series-ending injury in Game 1 could derail the Bolts.
The Capitals paled in comparison. Most of their best players simply failed to play up to expectations. Only Ovechkin, with four points in this series, and goalie Michal Neuvirth played well for the most part.
Alexander Semin managed only two points, while Nicklas Backstrom and a banged-up Mike Green had only one point each.
Semin’s inability to raise his game consistently in the postseason came as no surprise to most observers, but Backstrom’s poor performance in this year’s playoffs was troubling.
He was criticized by analysts for appearing “disengaged” and listless. Perhaps he was hampered by an undisclosed injury or distracted by a serious personal matter. Otherwise, the decline of his offensive game could be cause for concern.
Last year’s elimination by the Canadiens, who rallied from a 3-1 series deficit, was embarrassing but was considered a necessary learning experience on the Capitals’ road to maturation as a Stanley Cup contender.
This loss to the Lightning however cannot, and will not, be merely dismissed as part of a necessary learning process.
Instead, they will face mounting criticism over a perceived lack of leadership, coaching, heart, desire and work ethic necessary to become a contender.
It remains to be seen what moves management might make this summer, but it’s clear this talented team lacks something, be it coaching, character or the mental and physical toughness to succeed in the playoffs.
Whatever is missing, the front office must address it. Their critics and restless fans expect nothing less.