Monday, November 28, 2011

capital offense

As expected, at least in my house, the Capitals fired Bruce Boudreau this morning. I didn’t think he’d make it through Thanksgiving weekend, but he did…barely. The Caps lost their last two games 6-3 and 5-1; games I didn’t watch, but the box scores told the story. Truthfully, Boudreau did some amazing stuff in his four years and three days as manager: he unleashed the offense, he then strangled the offense in order to focus on defense when the playoffs became an issue (and was successful until the team quit vs. Tampa last year), he won 200+ games. For what skills Boudreau has, he used them all. Now, here’s where the screw turns.

Ovechkin. His decline from top of the league to a minus-4 vs. Buffalo over the weekend has more than likely sealed his fate as a flash that’s burnt out over the last two years. You don’t get a minus-4 in a 5-1 loss unless you are actively sabotaging your team on the ice. You see minus-4 only rarely in hockey; even on off nights when you’re team loses 7-1, you won’t see minus-4’s on the score sheet. In order to ever be a considered a great in any team sport you can’t ever sacrifice the game on the ice or field. Ever. To finally be tabbed a coach killer, and make no mistake, Ovechkin is now a coach killer, is generally the final mark against a player in team sports. You can hate your coach, actively want him gone, talk to the press, etc., but when you quit on the ice then your hatred (or ego) moves you into territory from which you’ll never recover. Even though I say it’s been two years, it’s actually been a bit longer – that nearly two years marks the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

In the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs (about seven months prior to the Olympics), the Capitals lost game 7 at home to the Penguins in the Eastern Conference semi-finals. The final was score was 5-2 and the Penguins went on to win the Cup; Ovechkin and the Capitals began a long swoon to where we sit now. I left that game with about ten minutes to go in the third, obstensibly to beat traffic, but even then I saw the writing. They Caps quit in that game the moment Ovechkin failed to score on a breakaway with the score at either 0-0, or 1-0. The flood gates opened and the Pens built the led to something like 4-1 or 5-1 before I gave up. That was waypoint 1 on the journey. Waypoint 2 was the horrid Russian performance at the Olympics. Waypoint 3 was the loss to the Canadiens in the first round of the 2010 playoffs. Waypoint 4, and one far worse from a leadership point-of-view than the loss to Montreal, was the 4-0 sweep by Tampa in last year’s second round. Tampa was better than most thought, but they weren’t that good, comparatively. After losing the first two at home, the Capitals quit. The final destination is today. Two days after posting a minus-4 on the ice, Ovechkin gets what he wanted: a new coach. Problem is, #8 hasn’t shown any inkling to grow as a player and I don’t see it happening now. New coach Dale Hunter is walking into a locker room that’s been poisoned by at least two full years of refusing to play a team game. That poison has seeped so far into the team that you can see the rest of the players simply falling in line with the lack of will that Alex has exhibited since missing that breakaway in 2009. His path, and this team’s, is littered with failure after failure when the rubber hits the road. There’s a common denominator in the math: Ovechkin.

I don’t know if Hunter is the cure – I doubt it. A few things need to happen to right the ship. First and foremost, strip Ovechkin on the captaincy. He never should have been made captain, and after his performance in the last two games, he never should wear it again. If Dale Hunter is the badass everyone thinks he is, he needs to walk in the room, take the “C”, and tell Alex, in front of the team and the hockey gods, that’ll he’ll never wear it again after what he pulled the Buffalo game. If anyone else has any questions about winning, they’ll keep them to themselves. The result is that Ovechkin goes into a funk (could it be worse than this?), or he answers the bell. Choices. His career from this point forward is either a Steve Yzerman resurgence or a steeper fall into mediocrity.

Time tells.

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