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The Hangover (Part 2)

It’s time for a greasy breakfast and some electrolytes because this thing isn’t going to cure itself.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-New York Islanders at Washington Capitals Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

The six games that the Capitals have appeared in since the COVID-19 return to play have fallen somewhere within the spectrum of uninspired to unmitigated disaster. But in those contests, it has become increasingly clear that the results don’t fully speak to the totality of their effort — or lack thereof.

Anyone familiar with the Caps in the modern era knows that this is a team that looks very different when they are giving their full effort, and when they are not. Pop over to YouTube or fire up the 2018 Stanley Cup Champions DVD and watch the level of play from their Cup run. Now compare that with their performances in the weeks leading up to these playoffs and the games since the restart, not to mention last year’s playoffs – you’re looking at a completely different team in terms of energy, strategy, and execution.

Even without the video evidence, it’s likely that you know what I’m referring to: predictable sling-shot passes on zone entries that are stymied at the opposing blue line, ill-conceived desperation two-line stretch passes down the middle of the ice that are easily chipped away by defensemen, an absence of conviction to clear the puck out of the defensive zone leading to second-, third-, and fourth-chance opportunities by opposing attackers.

It seems then according to conventional wisdom, and dang near every “Kevin_Malone_Chilli_Fail.gif” poster in online in Caps circles, that blame falls on the shoulders of the coaching staff, and Todd Rierden in particular. This sentiment is amplified by the contrast of the seeing Capitals’ own former Stanley Cup-winning coach Barry Trotz manning the helm on the opposite bench. While Rierden-led Caps have been listless and impotent, Trotz has seemingly called all the right shots to have his team up 3-0 against his former club. While I’ll grant that the Caps performance as a function of an ineffectual strategic repetitiveness does stem from an underlying lack of imagination and coaching adaptability, make no mistake: this is not solely a Todd Rierden issue.

While it’s easy to take a “winning cures all” attitude, and to exclusively evaluate the organization as being defined by their Stanley Cup Championship, these very conversations that are being had right now are reminiscent of those in the pre-Cup days.

It is worth remembering that this style of play isn’t exactly new. It didn’t begin with Todd Reirden, in fact it was present for large swaths of the Trotz era, and in the preceding Oates, Hunter, and Boudreau years as well.

Astute Caps-knower Joe Beninati had as much to say in a Monday morning radio interview:

“It’s not just Todd, it’s the guys on the ice, too...The pressure is on all of them, and they will all be graded and they will all be reviewed. This unfortunately feels like a changing of the guard to me, and that’s not necessarily pointed at the coaching staff, there’s a lot of players who will be graded harshly and be moved along from.”

The suggestion here is that while the coaching hasn’t done the team any favors, perhaps a larger share of the blame ought to, and ultimately will lay at the feet of the players.

It’s an interesting proposition to consider – this is a veteran team (the 10th oldest in the league, with an average age of nearly 28 years old) with a roster that is still largely intact, featuring fourteen players from the squad that hoisted the Cup just two years ago. While this bunch is mainly one that models upstanding behavior off the ice and hard play on it, there are notable shortcomings that feel unbecoming of a title-contending team. It doesn’t feel off-base to ask whether we should expect more personal accountability and self-motivation from a group that seems to come up short in both categories.

Up and down the roster, players are disappointing and appear to be under-prepared for the return to play. It’s Jakub Vrana, who is point-less with nine giveaways in his last 13 playoff games, a player who by many accounts could and should be a future franchise cornerstone. It’s John Carlson, whose case for the Norris Trophy has rapidly diminished having been on the ice for eight of the eleven Islander goals scored this series. It’s rent-a-vet Ilya Kovalchuk, who you may have forgotten was still technically still on the roster, logging 4 shots and 2 PIMs in his quest to have his named etched on the Cup for the first time at age 37. It’s Evgeny Kuznetsov, whose season started unceremoniously suspended, has seen his points per game decrease in each of the last three seasons, and has gotten his lunch eaten by opposing center-men in the face-off dot during these playoffs, having won just 38.9% of his draws. It’s Ilya Samsonov, whose reckless behavior preemptively ended his season, and may have gravely and needlessly threatened the future of his promising young career.

This is a team whose identity is very much wrapped up in a core group led by Alex Ovechkin, a player who arguably single-handedly make them compelling, competitive, and relevant. Without him, there would be far fewer Capitals and hockey fans both in the Washington area and perhaps around the world. To be fair, Ovechkin is one of the few Capitals whose numbers are even close to form, though not nearly enough to elevate his teammates around him in this postseason.

Ovi is a player whose critics are as repetitive as they are boisterous, suggesting that his effort is concentrated solely when he has a goal-scoring chance, he takes time off in the defensive zone, he is a me-first player who has a limited skill set confined to one end of the ice.

While I personally take issue with this characterization – he’s a very underrated passer, a freight train of a hitter, and has an exceptional hockey IQ – it is not easy to dismiss his critics completely out of hand. This is a team that follows his lead, in a culture very much molded in his image. When it’s good, it’s great: the gaudy goal numbers, the high-energy group celebrations, his drive to will this team to their first championship. The festivities of a lifetime that followed that Cup win are second-to-none, and arguably gave birth to the idea that Washington is city deserving of sports glory. But when it’s bad… Ovi begins to resemble the caricature of his critics describe him, and his teammates tend to follow in his footsteps.

To be clear, this is by no means an attempt to re-litigate the “they should take away his captaincy/ it should have been Brooks Laich in the first place” argument – I do think that remains the right move to have Ovechkin as captain simply because he’s the best, and singularly the most important player in franchise history whom they want to keep in Washington for the duration of his career, and the symbolism of granting him the C was, and continues to be, an acknowledgment of his importance to the organization.

However, I don’t believe it’s unreasonable to suggest that (regardless of rank or official title) players will look to Ovechkin as a leader, and will mirror his attitude, style, and approach. For as much as we can build him up as a leader who sets the tone and drives play, it’s fair to ask that when he’s not doing those things are his teammates able to find that motivation on their own?

Two years ago, the Capitals were the darlings of the sporting world when they hoisted the Stanley Cup and had a party for the ages. They “raised the bar for Cup cellies” turned haters into adherents and proved that “it’s okay to believe.” The following season ended in disappointment, though still fell very much in the honeymoon phase. As the inevitable crash-and-burn approaches, those Cup-stands and fountain swims feel a little more distant. In much the same way actual hangovers manifest, the Capitals are demonstrating that as you get older it can be harder to shake things off and get back to work.