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Rink Roundtable: Capitals Postmortem

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[In the wake of the Caps' dismissal from the annual tourney to claim Lord Stan's challis, Rink writers Pepper, DMG and I had a little back-and-forth over email about what went down and where things are going, and that discussion is posted below - feel free to jump into the conversation in the comments.]

J.P.: Alright, fellas. The dust is starting to settle and the post mortems are plentiful, so let's put on our 20/20 hindsight glasses, warm up our Monday Morning Quarterbacking arms and talk about what happened - and what didn't.

First question: What's your biggest "second guess" of the Pens series? If you could go back two weeks and whisper something in Bruce Boudreau's ear, what would it be?

DMG: Well, I think the big obvious is whether or not the team should have given Jose Theodore a start in Game Three or Four as a way to rest Simeon Varlamov.  As good as he was in the playoff as a whole, he started to look tired during that two game set in Pittsburgh and never fully recovered.  Personnel-wise I think you can look at the decision to recall Jay Beagle over Keith Aucoin.  I'm not on the Aucoin bandwagon nearly as much as some fans, but this series was so close that if he could have captured any of that lighting in a bottle play he did in his last stint in Washington, it might have made the difference.

But what I second guess is one thing, and what I'd whisper in Boudreau's ear is another.  That would be, "If you team finds itself shorthanded in overtime, make sure you have a better plan that putting a 39-year-old forward who's been showing his age out on defense."

J.P.: To me, it was starting Varly in Game 4.

I said at the beginning of the series that Bruce should have told Varly then that he'd be sitting one of the back-to-backs regardless of how great he was playing so that the kid could know that if he was to get a night off, it wasn't merit-based.

Then, soon after Game 3 ended, I thought about the possibility of Theo getting Game 4.

We know that there were concerns about Varly’s conditioning, and that Games 4 and 5 were back-to-backs that also represented both the first and last of three games in four nights, a total of four in six from Game 3 to Game 6. And Varly himself admitted that fatigue was setting in.

Now, Varly was incredible in Game 3, and you wouldn't necessarily want to bench your best player in a critical Game 4, up two games to one, but was Varly really going to be able to play - and play well - in every game?

The problem as I saw it was that if Varly wasn't good in Game 4 - and he wasn't - and they sat him for Game 5 (which they didn't), it would have sent him the message that he could be yanked after a bad game. And then they'd have put him back in for a potential must-win down 3-2? Alternatively, if they'd played him in Game 5 (which, of course, they did) after a less-than-stellar outing, they risked consecutive bad games because he’d either been solved or he’d burnt out.

On the other hand, had Jose started Game 4, there were two possible outcomes: win, great – Varly then gets three chances to close it out. Lose? Not disastrous, as the series is where it "should" have been – tied at two after four games. And if it was 2-2 heading into Saturday, the team gets an emotional boost by getting the guy they know can win a game on his own back between the pipes, rested and on home ice.

Jose was good against Pittsburgh this year, and maybe a right-catching goalie would have thrown the Pens off ever-so-slightly.

The reality was that Varly was going to get every start, and he probably deserved 'em if he wanted 'em. But for a goalie with durability questions and fatigue setting in, I’m not sure this was ideal.

Pepper: For sure, Varlamov was overworked.  But had he not continued to face so much rubber as the series wore on, he would not have been as exposed to lapses from fatigue, and maybe we're not talking about goaltending changes at all.  Game 3, in particular, saw a barrage of ridiculous-quality shots and scoring chances, the result of persistent defensive breakdowns. 

The Caps lost this series because they couldn't get the puck out the zone quickly, period.  That falls primarily on the D corps and, in particular, the one backliner who, despite a benching in the biggest Capitals game of the last decade, still logged the most ice time of all Caps in the playoffsMike Green.  Now, of course, all of the Caps' defensemen can be blamed to one degree or another in failing to hold down the fort in and around Varly.  But if I could change one personnel move of Coach Boudreau's in this series, I would have benched Green after Game 3.

The red, white, and blue, too often this series, were chasing the puck in their own end because they could not win corner battles, battles in front of the net, and then get that first outlet pass up ice and out of the zone.  Forwards were forced to pick up the slack, rendering them exhausted and unable to transition to any sustained offensive pressure the other way.  Green's ineffectiveness was a huge contributor to that story.  But having two good shoulders is essential to the requisite effort.

Green was hurt, and though we knew not the precise nature or extent of his ailment, it was pretty clear that all was far from right with him.  Various creative excuses were offered for his poor play at both ends of the ice.  First he was sick, and then he was adjusting to a new stick.  We'll find out more about what was bothering him with his re-injured shoulder, perhaps today on breakdown day.

Coach proved himself capable of making the gutsy, to understate it, decisions in the post-season, by tapping Varly's shoulder for Game 2 of the first round, a prospect as green as they come (pardon the pun), to replace the #1 veteran goaltender in JT, who had just, more or less, led the team to a 50 win season.  So he should have followed up one bold move with another, and benched Green.

You'll recall the month of December, the one where the Caps enjoyed their best single-month record of the 2008-09 season, to the tune of 11-3.  Green was initially hurt prior to that time, and the D corps was further decimated with lengthy injuries to Tom Poti and Jeff Schultz.  In came Tyler Sloan, Karl Alzner, and even Sean Collins and Bryan Helmer, to gamely fill in.  And they held down the fort.  The Caps soared on account of a lockdown defense that played efficient and tough in the corners, allowing an average of 28 SA/G during that month, compared to 36.6 SA/G in the series with Pittsburgh.

Granted, the quality of opponent was lesser during December.  But depth at defense is so critical in the playoffs because a team can then use it to rotate in NHL-quality D, sending out a full squad of six healthy defenders for a given contest.  Not so they can wear suits in the press box.

A one-armed defenseman, Norris Trophy candidate though he may be, was no match for the Penguins' hulking centers.  (Not to mention said injury severely impairing Green's ability to bomb from the point on the PP.)  Sloan, for one example, was quite sound when he was given the opportunity, and might have earned more minutes, and Alzner deserved a post-season look.

J.P.: Bold. I wonder at what percentage of "Mike Green" Tyler Sloan becomes the better option. But the fact that Bruce didn't even really cut back on 52's minutes until Game 7 would seem to indicate a bit of a lack of faith not only in Sloan et. al., but also in the other five guys in the lineup.

Speaking of ice time, we made a lot of the long shifts skated by some of the forwards, and after Game 7, Alex Ovehckin, Alex Semin and Nick Backstrom ranked first, fourth and sixth in shift length in the playoffs. Did that aspect of game management come back to bite the Caps, or did they get away with it?

Pepper: I see it as related.  Perhaps they wouldn't have had such long shifts if they didn't spend the first forty seconds or so of each one trying to get the puck out of the defensive end.

J.P.: Here's another question - In the past two seasons we've seen this team play at a feverish pace from November through the end of the regular season just to make the playoffs one year (and they were spent when they got there), and then enter the playoffs on cruise control in the other year after having built up a big lead in the Division early on (and they were perhaps unable to flip the switch back into full-on "compete" mode once they got there). Any guesses as to what 2009-10 will look like? With those two almost polar opposite examples in their recent memories, will they know how hard to push and how much to keep in reserve during the regular season to maximize their post-season ability?

Frankly, I can see the team struggling a bit through Christmas and a bit beyond - after this disappointment and playing at such an intense level for about a month, it might be hard to get amped up to play Atlanta in October and inter-Conference games in November, especially when they've seen teams like Pittsburgh, Carolina and Anaheim that coasted for much of this past regular season and seem to have caught their spark at the right time (granted, two of those teams fired coaches to help right their respective ships).

Pepper: The emotional roller coaster will be a distant memory come September, and though I would expect a less giddy and more workmanlike demeanor from guys at training camp, I see the team coming out of the 2009-10 gate strong.  They might hit a lull pre- or post-Olympic break, but otherwise do fine into and through March.

I see another stellar regular season overall, flirting with 50 wins, and certainly no individual month below .500 (as it is currently mis-defined).  I would look for them in particular to have a bit more consistent effort, which means winning a few more of the LA and Columbus-type games, and maybe losing a couple more to elite teams like Boston, Detroit, and, yes, Pittsburgh. 

If they "keep some in reserve," it might be borne out by not getting too keyed up for the regular season games against those elite teams, knowing that it is just one game out of 82, and the same two points on the line.

DMG: I think the team's going to struggle a little bit early on because I think they're going to be willing to treat next season, in part, as an experiment.  Things would really have to go awry for them to miss the playoffs and so it's less an issue of getting there than it is figuring out who's going to win once they get there.  I'd expect see guys get chances in expanded roles and guys from Hershey get a chance to show what they can do at the NHL level.  Once the team has a better idea of where they stand as a Stanley Cup contender, they'll be able to make adjustments (including going out at making deals, a la the 2008-09 Penguins) and do a better job of tweaking the roster to get that mix you need to have a legitimate chance at the Cup.

J.P.: OK, last question for now - if you could come up with a pithy mantra for next season, for team t-shirts, a sign in the room, whatever, what would it be?

Pepper: It's an awkward phrase (and I probably wouldn't want to wear it emblazoned on a t-shirt) but I'll go with "Win Each Period."  Too often this season and into the playoffs, the team would come out slow and have to play catch-up.  Treat each period as a game in itself, and resolve to come out ahead in each one.  Don't expect to be able to turn it on and off and make up for missed opportunities on account of intermittent sagging effort.

J.P.: I'm going with "Own the Puck." Everything starts and ends with puck possession - be it more offensive chances for, increased penalties drawn, limiting chances against, fewer penalties taken, etc. When you talk about things like "discipline," that's really more often than not just a symptom - the disease is poor puck possession, and it needs to be the primary focus of this team going forward.

Alright, that's enough to chew on for now. Good talk, boys.