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Blogger on Blogger: Caps blog Russian Machine Never Breaks

Baltimore is blessed with a bunch of talented sports bloggers who bring their unique perspective to the conversation. I often link up to these local writers in my morning Coffee Companion posts, but instead of just exchanging anti-social links with them, I have decided to be slightly less anti-social by exchanging emails with them in a somewhat regular feature called Blogger on Blogger.

On the heels of the Capitals’ most recent playoff collapse, I wanted to tap into the exceptional pool of hockey bloggers in the D.C. area for our latest installment of Blogger on Blogger. Lucky for me, I was able to convince Ian Oland and Neil Greenberg of Capitals blog Russian Machine Never Breaks, which might be the best of the bunch, to talk hockey with me. I would like to thank them for getting their answers back to me on such a short turnaround.

MV:  So what went wrong for the Capitals this time around?

IO: After swiftly beating the Rangers in five games, the Capitals ran into a brick wall in the second round. Why? Well it was a lot of things. First of all, the Lightning were on a roll. After falling behind in their first-round series, 3-1, Tampa rallied and took three straight games from the Penguins, outscoring them 13-4 in the process. While the Capitals sat at home for a week waiting to find out who their opponent would be, the Bolts had gelled and were starting to play some of their best hockey of the season. 

When the first game of their semifinals series finally started, the Capitals struggled to find the same rhythm they had in the first round. The offense stayed to the perimeter -- unwilling to pay the same price for goals as they did against New York -- and had problems hitting the net or getting shots through.  When they actually did, 41-year-old goaltender Dwayne Roloson -- whom the Lightning acquired from the Islanders on the same day as the Winter Classic -- was equal to the challenge. Rebounds were limited and the Lightning defense was good at clearing the puck when necessary. 

While Alex Ovechkin was arguably the most effective player in the entire series, the Capitals' other stars like Nicklas Backstrom (zero goals, one assist) and Alex Semin (one goal, one assist) were outshined by both the Lightning's best players -- Vincent Lecavalier (six points) and Martin St. Louis (five points) -- as well as their role players: Steve Downie (five points) and Sean Bergenheim (four goals). 

The series could have been different if the Capitals could have won Game 2 at home or Game 3 in Tampa.  Instead, they made crucial mistakes unbefitting of a championship team and lost. During overtime in Game 2, Capitals defenseman Scott Hannan had a brain cramp and made a poor shift-change. As Jeff Schultz struggled to get back into the play, Vincent Lecavalier was left alone in front of the net and tallied the [game-winning goal in overtime]. Then in Game 3, while holding a 3-2 lead in the third period, the Caps flat out wilted on the ice, giving up two goals in under 30 seconds. 

It's important to remember that the Caps finished only four standings points (which amounts to basically two wins) above the Lightning during the regular season. Tampa Bay rarely strayed from their 1-3-1 trap and played well for [coach] Guy Boucher all year. They are a good team, too. Washington also struggled with injury throughout the series -- Mike Knuble, Eric Fehr, Mike Green, and Dennis Wideman all missed time and John Carlson played hurt -- and were thoroughly outplayed in the third period of each game.

MV: Have you seen Backstrom and Semin anywhere, or should we file a missing person’s report?

NG: I saw Backstrom create more than 25 scoring chances since March 22 without scoring a goal, so I know he was on the ice. When they had the exit interviews [Wednesday] and the media said that the Super Swede wasn't injured, I was not all that surprised: [coach Bruce] Boudreau relied on him pretty heavily to take defensive zone draws since David Steckel was traded and wouldn't have if he knew of an injury. At least I don't think. Backstrom and Ovechkin were used very differently than they were in years past, and I wasn't surprised to see a downturn in production. I was only surprised by how long the slump lasted.

Semin, compared to last season, had a decent playoffs: four goals and two assists in nine games after going zero for 44 [shots] against Montreal last year. You need to keep expectations low with Semin: He's a purely offensive player who shows glimpses of concentration on the penalty kill while taking stick penalties in the offensive zone. Deviate from that and you'll probably be disappointed.

MV: Will another disappointing early end cost Boudreau his job, and should it cost him his job?

IO: [Wednesday] during breakdown day, George McPhee told the assembled media at Kettler Capitals IcePlex that he believed that there was no difference between a "regular season coach" and a "postseason coach," and stated that he would like to see Bruce back next year. Ted Leonsis wrote on his blog as well that he would like a few days before making any big decisions for next year. For all intents and purpose, Bruce will be back.

We covered this on RMNB Wednesday night, but we are of the belief that Bruce Boudreau was not at fault for the Capitals wilting in the playoffs; it was the players. [Editor's note: Here's an except:]

“Well, the regular season is not an 82-game preseason,” we wrote. “October to March are not a preamble. The regular season is where habits are formed -- habits that echo through the postseason. For Tampa Bay that means a focused system, strictly executed with tons of speed. The Lightning players follow orders like soldiers. The Capitals don’t have soldiers. Not enough anyway. Instead they have divas: players who only care when they have to and do so only on their own terms. The regular season saw players sleepwalking through games, perhaps even literally. We saw some players vacillate between disinterest and self-interest. We saw players ditching Dean Evason’s and Bob Woods’ systems at will. Those bad habits became a pattern, and those swift postseasons became reckonings. Case in point: Alex Ovechkin’s suicide run into the Tampa Bay Lightning’s trap when the dump-in hard-around was the right and authorized move. Bruce Boudreau isn’t the problem in the organization, but maybe he knows what that problem is now. It’s not tactics or strategy, it’s attitude.”

MV: The Capitals changed their overall approach midway through the season and it seemed like the transformation would result in a deeper playoff run, at least to the conference finals. But the team appeared to get back to their free-wheeling ways against the Lightning, or “river hockey” as Boudreau calls it, and got swept. Assuming Boudreau stays, what do you think the team’s on-ice philosophy will be next season?

IO: I believe the Capitals will stay with the defensive system they put in place this year and expand upon it in training camp next year. I think the philosophy of the organization has changed and they feel now that it's better to finish first in goals allowed than goals scored. And frankly, more power to them.  As we've seen with the Ravens in past years, defense wins championships.  Very few free-wheeling teams win Stanley Cups or championships for that matter in other sports.

MV: I’ve read and heard fan criticism of the team’s “soft players” -- and some are calling out the team’s European players specifically -- saying they weren’t hungry enough. In terms of personnel, will we see any radical changes to the Capitals’ roster? Which players are locks to stay?

IO: I don't believe there will be any radical changes to this club over the summer, though I could certainly foresee some trades happening depending on how everything shakes up.  I would actually look for the Capitals to try and solve any problems they have from within. I foresee prospects Cody Eakin, Dmitri Orlov, Jay Beagle and Andrew Gordon getting long looks in training camp.  If Evgeny Kuznetsov, the Capitals first-round pick in 2010, decides to come over to the States, he would be a huge addition to the roster as well. Kuznetsov, at 18, was the youngest player ever in the KHL All-Star Game. He also scored the second-most goals ever in a season (16) for a Russian player under 19 and won gold at the World Junior Championship in Buffalo last year.

In regards to the veteran players, I do not foresee rentals like Scott Hannan, Marco Sturm, or Jason Arnott being re-signed.  Brooks Laich and Matt Bradley may also not be brought back as well depending on their price. But we'll see. The Capitals have some big decisions to make over the summer and there's a lot of different directions they can go in.

MV: Alex Ovechkin, in particular, is under fire because he wears the ‘C.’ Is too much being asked of him at this stage in his young career?

NG: I don't think so. Hockey captains, no matter what age, are revered. They also have a ton of responsibility heaped on them. If they score, they are leading by example. If they are overaggressive on a check into the boards and take a minor, they're just trying to energize the team. If they have a defensive miscue, they are berated because captains aren't supposed to commit errors. There is a new movement in the NHL where teams anoint their star players captain, and Ovechkin wears that mantle just fine.

MV: What are some silver linings to take away from this season despite the stomach-punching playoff exit?

NG: Despite key injuries, they made a system change that was a complete departure from a year ago, and somehow made it work. They had an eight-game losing streak, but also a nine-game winning streak. Ovechkin did the unthinkable and barely cracked 30 goals scored, but they still were the top seed in the East. [Rookie] Michael Neuvirth stood tall in net, despite most (including me) thinking [Semyon] Varlamov was a better option down the stretch. They also saw that two rookie blueliners (John Carlson and Karl Alzner) were good enough to step up and shoulder some of the toughest minutes in the NHL.

MV: Three years ago, it seemed like the Capitals would be destined for multiple Stanley Cup titles after the excellent rebuilding job GM George McPhee did after the lockout. Now it is no longer certain. Ultimately, will this core of players led by Ovechkin lead the Capitals to a Cup?

NG: In the salary-cap era, the window to win championships is a lot shorter than people think. You have maybe two or three years to capitalize (no pun intended) on your chances after drafting well and adding some key components. I don't think a team will win multiple championships in the post lockout era. I think this Washington team, with a nucleus of Ovechkin, Backstrom, Semin and Green, has another year or two to make it happen, but multiple Cups just is not a realty for any team over the short term.

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