In the end, in Game 7, the Washington Capitals just didn’t play very well.
It was a one-goal game, as everyone should have expected. But it really wasn’t all that close. The New York Rangers scored just 1:32 into the game and controlled much of the play the rest of the way, beating the Caps 2-1 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
The Rangers will go on to face the New Jersey Devils in the conference finals, and the Capitals go on to face uncertainty and questions about their immediate and long-term future.
In every game this series, the team that scored first won, and Game 7 was no different. The Caps fell behind and never really righted themselves, though the shots on goal were even through the first frame. But as the game wore on, the Rangers continued to frustrate the Caps.
A brief segment of quality play in the second period ended as if there was none, with no goals scored. In the third, the team traded goals in a 38 second span, but the result was the same as if it did not happen: a one-goal lead for the Rangers. Ultimately, New York had too much on the Caps; Washington was out-shot 11-4 in the final stanza.
“The Rangers played the way we played [in Game 6],” Nicklas Backstrom said. “They got a lead at the beginning and they controlled the game. We had some good puck possession in the second period but we couldn’t get any real opportunities.”
We’ll have plenty of time to analyze the now concluded season and look ahead to the off-season, when the Caps must make weighty decisions about seven unrestricted free agents and four more restricted free agents, not to mention whether Dale Hunter returns to lead this team next season.
“It’s not the time right now,” he said matter-of-factly when asked about his return next season in his post-game press conference.
Yet, I’m going to. I think the time to debate the pros and cons of “Hunter Hockey” starts right now. If the wound is still too fresh, you might want to skip the rest of this column.
There are many people right now considering the fact that the Caps were one game away from the conference finals and want to label the season a success. I think that’s misguided. This team was built for a deep playoff run, yet they sleepwalked through the regular season, played some downright unwatchable hockey at times, and barely qualified for the playoffs.
I think the Caps ultra-conservative game plan in the playoffs masked the fact that they still couldn’t establish any offensive possession or consistency in moving the puck through the neutral zone, instead relying on blocking shots, chipping the puck out of their own zone, then hoping for an odd-man rush to spark an attack. It’s not playing to win — it’s playing not to lose. And they played it to a tee.
Let me lay this out there for you, despite the still-raw stinging of an open wound. If Hunter returns to guide this hockey team next season, knowing what we know of his coaching style and preferences, you have to imagine there will be a lot of changes in personnel. With the loss in Game 7, we might have witnessed more than an improbable playoff run. Rather, we might have seen the end of the “Young Gun” era.
It’s clear Hunter prefers to play a close-to-the-vest, checking, shot-blocking, ultra-conservative system. There are players on this team, of course, that can thrive in that type of environment. But you know who isn’t suited for it? Nick Backstrom. Mike Green. Alexander Semin. Dennis Wideman. And most of all, Alex Ovechkin.
Yes, all of the above “bought in” for this playoff stretch. What choice did they have? But none are particularly well-suited for the grinding style Hunter prefers. It’s one thing to suck it up during the playoffs, blocking shots and packing the neutral zone. It’s entirely another thing to ask Ovechkin, Backstrom, Semin and Green to sacrifice their immense offensive skill over an 82-game season.
This team was designed by George McPhee for Bruce Boudreau’s all-out offensive attack. In order to mold it in the way Hunter wants to play, big changes are in order. We’ll have to wait and see on Hunter’s decision to return but if he does, this team will look very different next season, for better or worse.
I don’t believe in “playoff hockey.” I think it’s a crutch for under-equipped teams to remain competitive when the stakes are higher — when one mistake means the difference between winning and losing. In my opinion, it’s a myth perpetuated by veteran coaches and media. The “right way to play” is a fallacy. If you play hard, play honest, play smart, it doesn’t matter if you play an offensive or defensive style.
Maybe Hunter was able to coax more responsibility out of the Young Guns. Maybe he was able to get them to finally believe in team over personal success. Maybe some of them figured they were playing for their jobs. Maybe none of this was the case, and the Caps advanced to Game 7 in the second round solely on the willingness to put their bodies in the line of fire and benefitted from a 22-year old goalie having the best four weeks of his still very young career. We’ve seen that before, too.
Maybe I’m completely off-base. I know several people I have the utmost respect for that disagree with me. But for all the comments about the Caps playing “the right way” by national media, where did it get them?
Three games. That’s all this team accomplished more than last year’s. Three games.
It’s going to be a long off-season.
Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Nats and the Caps, and previously wrote Nats News Network and Caps News Network. Dave’s first sports hero was Bobby Dandridge. Follow Dave’s Capitals coverage on Twitter @CapitalsDSP.