Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Capital offense

Back on March 31, I wrote about the possibilities of first-round upsets in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, focusing on the matchups between first-seed and eighth-seed teams. The focus was on the chances of the Montreal Canadiens, who squeaked into the playoffs, taking out Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals, who won the President's Trophy for the NHL's best regular-season record.

On paper, it was a complete mismatch. But as the legendary King Clancy used to say, "Hockey's a slippery game -- it's played on ice." And so it was for the Caps, who have slid into the abyss of summer after being eliminated by the upstart Habs.

It was truly a monumental collapse; not only did the Caps become only the ninth 1-seed to be upset by an 8-seed in 34 series under the current NHL playoff format (26.5 percent), but became the first 1-seed in league history to lose a first-round matchup after holding a 3-1 series lead, as the Canadiens stormed back to win the final three games.

The Caps also became the fifth President's Trophy winner to succumb in the first round since the NHL moved to its current playoff system in 1994. That, after scoring a league-leading 318 goals during the regular season (Vancouver was a distant second with 272 goals) and netting a league-high 79 power-play goals.

In their seven-game loss to the Canadiens, the Caps were a woeful 1-for-33 on the power play (3.0 percent) and scored only one goal in each of the last three games of the series, all won by Montreal.

The series was clearly divided into two parts; through the first four games, when Washington took a 3-1 series lead, they averaged 4.75 goals, as Canadiens goaltender Jaroslav Halak had a pedestrian .880 save percentage (139 saves in 158 shots). But in Games 5 through 7, Halak was a hero as he stood on his head for a .978 save percentage and allowed only three goals in 134 shots.

There will be much finger-pointing in the nation's capital, most in the direction of Ovechkin, who has yet to translate his pulsating, exhilarating talent and style of play into postseason success, and has failed to make a dent into the territory firmly held by Sidney Crosby.

"There wasn't much I could tell them," Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said in the interview room. "I told them I feel exactly like they did. I thought we had a good chance to win the Stanley Cup this year. I would have bet my house that they wouldn't have beaten us three games in a row. We all feel as low as we can possibly feel, and we'll meet in a day and we'll discuss the shoulda beens, the coulda beens at that time."

Perhaps Washington forward Jason Chimera said it best.

"If someone came to your work and stepped on your desk or punched you in the head, that's how I feel," Chimera told "You come for a long playoff run, and it doesn't happen. It's tough. Right now, it's weird."

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