Before this series began we've roamed the entirety of cyberspace and TV and were astounded to see how everybody, and I mean EVERYBODY thought we were going to take home the Cup this year. After all, this was OUR YEAR, right? After back-to-back 27th place finishes following the lockout, followed by a Cinderella-esque clinching of the SE Division championship, only to be handed two consecutive Game 7 exits (one at the hands of Those Who We Shall Not Mention), we were finally slated for some playoff retribution this year. We took the league by storm, right?
I mean, you know that you have a strong chance when even the pontificating pundits at TSN led by past-his-prime and out-of-his-mind Bob McKenzie, are projecting you have a chance to take home Ye Olde Stanley Cup. After all, with exception to Ray Ferraro and humble Scott Cullen, all McKenzie's colleagues are notorious for their nationalistic prejudice against Russians (stick to Strange Brew reenactment tours, Bob) and overly critical of our Club and system as a whole, rarely if ever giving us and Ovie our due and elevating that Son of a Crosby to a deity-like status for those north of the 40th parallel and in Pittsburgh.
But what about us, the true fans of our beloved Caps? What about those of us who eat, sleep, and bleed Red? What about those with highly adorned Caps themed man-caves and enough paraphernalia on our office walls to make even the most remote passers by pause and think to themselves "I wish I was half as passionate about something as that guy." What were our expectations? Let's divulge after the jump.
Well Rink Rats and Rabbits, I would surmise that even in the wake of utter despair, hopelessness, and confusion we were not so self-absorbed to think we would actually go the distance this year in a silver-plated cake-walk. Possible? Absolutely. After all,based on the Dan Arnold Puck Probability Model, who happens to have a Masters in Statistics qualifying him to make such assertions, we were statistically shown to have a 32.5% chance at winning the Stanley Cup, so why not pause and dream for a week or two?
But reality must sink in eventually and in reality, those close to the Caps and the game, deep down, were experiencing immense fear and trepidation the moment our first-round pairing was announced. I know I sure as
hell heck was. We had a 2-1-1 record against the Candiens this year, and very little success against Canadian teams as a whole. They dominated us or at least matched us in almost every goal-tending statistic, and that was with Carey Price in net! I would imagine our record to be 1-1-2 at best if Halak had established himself as the #1 goalie prior to the Olympics (which in the minds of many he was well on his way to doing). Not to mention that our high-octane offense is a terrible match-up for the notorious trap systems of the West, of which Montreal has needed to default to due to the lack of high-priced production that was supposed to be delivered by the hands of Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta.
An Introspectdive Look
To answer this question, what were our realistic expectations, it requires intentional integrity on our behalves. Yes, Jaroslav Halak played out of his mind. Yes Hal Gil used all 6'7" of himself to block every imaginable shot possible. Yes, Montreal deployed a gut-wrenching trap system that completely eliminated the neutral zone forcing us to eventually demean ourselves to dump and chase the last few games of the series. But we mustn't use those as excuses as those things were to be expected! Have we already forgotten that Halak was the only reason known to man that Slovakia almost walked away with a Bronze Medal, despite having an offensively terrible Team that would have otherwise been blown out of the water? This was THE SAME MAN who stopped 36 of 37 Soviet sniper shots to down Mother Russia and pull off one of the largest Olympic upsets in history! Did we unanimously forget that Hal Gill was one of two reasons that those Who We Shall Not Mention raised the most coveted trophy in all of hockey lore last year (the other being Rob Scuderi)? Did we temporarily lose our collective minds?
No. We know better than that. Overcoming such obstacles are what truly separates the sheep from the goats, and as of now our Caps haven't quite proven themselves to be former in the playoffs. But these are indeed our boys, our countrymen, our folk legends, our heroes... and we stand beside them. We've stood beside them much longer anyone in the mainstream hockey media and we know their ins and outs well. We've sweated through 44 fantastic home games that have garnered jubilation and utter contempt with unyielding support and admiration, without becoming fickle and allowing the winds consumer-driven media impact our understanding of the game, which is more than I can say for the great and yet sometimes misled Pierre McGuire (thanks Dan for pointing that out so well in typical tongue-in-cheek fashion). And it is through that experience that we know that while it is painful that all good things must come to an end, in the end this will lead to much, much greater things and hopefully in the meantime we will not lose faith in our rag-tag bunch of world-class hockey players. After all, the Good Book tells us to "consider it pure joy... whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything." And we are not yet at a place where we are not lacking anything. In fact, we all know we're far from it.
Blinded by the Light
In that regard, I encourage you, fellow Caps fans, to look at this as a blessing in disguise. The fact of the matter is that we all knew we were in trouble from the moment our 14-win historic streak ended. The light has a way of exposing weaknesses, and there was no greater spotlight for unaddressed chinks in our armor than this particular Game 7 series the eyes of the entire the hockey world were on us. And how could they not? We went up 3-1 and were thoroughly manhandled 3 games straight while attempting to seal the deal, going 1-for-31 on the Power Play and getting a paltry 3 of 134 shots through in the process. That's what one can only describe as an exercise in futility. Fortunately for us though, only someone completely lacking in observational skills wouldn't be able to assess the seemingly ageless problems we've had for the past three years of postseason disappointment.
So take a moment to contemplate what salve it would be on our wounds if GM GM finally vied for what we actually need this July 1st: at the very least another stay-at-home defenseman and more than two-three players with enough grit and determination to crash the crease with regularity and create garbage goal opportunities (thank you Knubes for being that man, and for Brooks Laich and Eric Fehr following not too far behind). Also some more disciplined coaching. Sorry Bench Boss BB, I love you but you can't blow sunshine up your players' skirts and expect it to work all the time. You set out to prove wrong the old axiom "Defense wins championships" and have failed again. Learn from four series chock-full of honor, hardship, and heartache and adapt already to the reality that sometimes conventional wisdom is just that, wise.
We also need to drop off some passengers that are looking for increased salary for little to no playoff effort as RFA's (sorry Sasha as this is directed at you, as going over a year and 40+ shots without a playoff goal yields that $6 million contract extension rather obtuse). Let's not forget that when the best man on your PK is Shaone Morrisonn, you know you've got some major issues; to be first on the PP and in the bottom 16% of the league on the PK is inexcusable by any stretch of the imagination. Again - there are some coaching adjustments to be made for sure.
In addition to our defense (which is exemplerary 5-on-5), many will quickly point to goaltending as being a potential weakness for the Caps, both statistically and financially, with Theo being a huge regular-season performer but playoff choke. However, I'd encourage you to take a look at the contract numbers (much thanks to RtR) and realize that his other-worldly salary and poor playoff performance has already worked himself out of a job as any contract remotely near his current $4.5 million salary would preclude 2-4 other players from returning. Players with playoff grit and experience of success like Scott Walker (who shone in his only playoff game despite being held off the scoresheet) and Fehr who needs to have a hockey school named after him due to how well he's developing in the type of player we desperately need. And let's not forget that despite being relegated back to the AHL, Michal Neuvirth still finished this year with the Caps' best Save Percentage (91.4%, if you're wondering). Combine that with Semyon Varlamov's exemplary playoff performances (only losing one playoff series ever he has started himself), and I think that situation will take care of itself. Don't forget that we have Artus Irbe pouring into them and a potentially complete season next year if we don't waste valuable cap space on a superfluous "veteran" (to be read "washed-up") goaltender.
Learning From This
So, though I fully recognize that the above viewpoints will lead to a lot of unpopularity around the Rink, let's be honest with ourselves here... completely honest. Anyone who knows hockey, and I don't mean just "I've been a HUGE CAPS FAN [for the past 2 years since they have been good]!"-hockey, I mean REAL hockey... the kind that involves the rich, nearly centennial history of this league, we knew it was a longshot. But we have faith in this - after a crushing, historic, monumental defeat (setting the NHL record as the first time ever a #1 seed has lost to a #8 seed after being up 3-1 in the series), only good can come of this.
Take some faith that due to the irreplaceable pain of experience the same amazing minds are already at work that have turned a bottom-dwelling NHL Team into the President's Trophy-bearing, much coveted franchise and simultaneously a top-ten hockey market. So trust in those same creative geniuses and know that as Flash and other non-essential assets are moved off the roster, the critical pieces we need will replace them in due time. And remember that in the playoffs, the regular season means nothing and that we will likely never again repeat the mistake of thinking that just because we're statistically slated to have a 1 out of 3 chance to win the Stanley Cup, it won't be ours for the taking without a knock-down, drag-out fight, regardless of where we end up in the regular season standings. Because when April comes around, you better be ready for anything. And next year, born out of humility, we will be.