Thursday, July 29, 2010

NHL 2010 Playoffs: Capitals Teetering on the Brink of Elimination

From True/Slant on April 28, 2010:

Paging Mr. Ovechkin: Time to put up or shut up in the Stanley Cup Playoffs

Image by Getty Images via Daylife
Good teams win games. Great teams, teams with designs on flying championship banners over center ice, win games with power, elan and dash. And they also win ugly games when they have to.

Last night, in Game 7 of the Western Conference first round playoff with the Phoenix Coyotes, the Detroit Red Wings proved their championship mettle. Backed into a corner like a feral, dare I say it, coyote, the Wings attacked. They did what championship teams do. They scored on the power play, created opportunities on the penalty kill and crashed the net. Finally, they reached inside of the chest cavity of Ilya Bryzgalov, ripped out his heart and smashed it into terrine of coyote offal right there at center ice.

The big stars, the names we all know — Henrik Zetterberg, Nicklas Lidstrom and Pavel Datsyuk — led Detroit’s way. There’s a reason these guys are perennial all-stars who have played in the Stanley Cup Final two years in a row.

Meanwhile, over in the east, the reigning Stanley Cup champs, my Pittsburgh Penguins, crushed the hopes and dreams of the Ottawa Senators with an overtime victory in game 6 on Saturday night to move on to the second round. The Pens did that on a night when their big stars were quiet. Without Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby or Marc-Andre Fleury making their typical SportsCenter highlight reel plays, Pittsburgh’s grinders picked up the slack. Matt Cooke, Pascal Dupuis and Billy Guerin (at this point in his career, Guerin has to be considered a grinder), came through in the crunch. None of those guys are household names. Well, outside of Pittsburgh.

But both games illustrate that great teams, like the Pens and the Red Wings, find a way. Sometimes it’s in the stars and sometimes it’s the role players shine. Some games are master strokes of artwork. And others are misshapen, grunting, calloused beasts of burden. But they are champs, because they can win any which way you want to play it.

Tonight, with the Washington Capitals hosting the upstart Montreal Canadiens in a deciding game 7, we’ll see if the Caps have the heart of a champion.

You can go through the line up. On paper, this may be the most talented team in hockey. (I kinda feel like those draft “experts” judging talent on paper like that. It made me all, like, tingly. Now I know what it must feel like to style Mel Kiper’s hair.) The point is – Alex Ovechkin, Mike Knuble, Brooks Laich, Alex Semin, Eric Fehr, Nicklas Backstrom — this is the time for those guys to step up. Mike Green, too.

I know that shooting the puck at Montreal’s Jaroslav Halak is like firing a b.b. gun at the Berlin Wall right now, but shoot they must. More than that, Washington needs to play ugly, create chaos in front of Halak, make him uncomfortable and disrupt his vision and timing. They need to plant themselves in front of the net and get dirty goals. It’s no fun playing in front of the net. It’s hard work and it takes a lot out of a player.

The Caps haven’t done much of that – setting up in front of the net, that is. They fired 54 shots at Halak on Monday night, nearly a shot a minute, which would be impressive, except that I counted only a dozen of those shots that came from anywhere in the vicinity of the net. Pathetic.

The Red Wings set up in front of net. They’ve gotten to two Cup finals by planting themselves in front of the opposing goalies long enough for a fan to hit the bathroom, buy a pretzel and make it back to her seat at the Joe before one of the red suited beasts are dislodged. They camp out in front of goalies. The Penguins, a team loaded with beautiful outside shooters, will crash the net when need be. Exhibit A — Matt Cooke’s two goal game on Saturday.

The Capitals have been remarkably unphysical, unwilling to park in front of the net and unwilling or unable to hit, too. The team leader in hits this series is Ovie with 20 hits in six games (a testament to him, because scoring wingers are not usually the guys laying out the biggest hits), but a pathetic reflection on the rest of the Capitals and their allergy to going to the body. Of all the Caps defensemen, Mike Green has the most hits with 14. Compare that to Brooks Orpik with 32 or Brad Stuart with 27. No wonder these guys have to play a game 7 in the first round.

The Stanley Cup playoffs is like a series of exams. If you pass the first test, your reward is to take the second test.

The Capitals, the “best” team in the East, an unstoppable force that seemed to score at will gets exam number one tonight against the Canadiens. So, what’s it going to be Mr. Ovechkin? Are you guys true contenders? Are you willing to put your heads down, hit everything that moves, muck it up in the corners for the puck, absorb cross-checks to create opportunities in front of Halak and do all the less fun, unglamorous work necessary to win?

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