Sports

Picking Splinters: Repair, Don’t Replace

 

Well … that was fast. Just last week in this space I wrote how I believed that the Washington Capitals not only were poised to compete for the Stanley Cup this season, but for years into the future. For the sake of the red-rockin’ fans on the ledge after a disastrous 4-3 loss in Game 3 to the Tampa Bay Lightning, I hope that future arrives fast.

Well … that was fast.

Just last week in this space I wrote how I believed that the Washington Capitals not only were poised to compete for the Stanley Cup this season, but for years into the future.

For the sake of the red-rockin’ fans on the ledge after a disastrous 4-3 loss in Game 3 to the Tampa Bay Lightning, I hope that future arrives fast.

By the time you read this Thursday morning, one of two things will have happened: 1.) The Capitals will have been swept out of the second round of the playoffs by a division rival, or 2.) The Capitals will be clinging to a 3-1 series deficit as they try to become only the fourth team in NHL history to rally from a 3-0 hole. Neither is a particularly palatable scenario for fans who have been aching for a playoff breakthrough for the past three seasons.

If you look at the big picture, you see the Capitals struggling to string together playoff success and have to wonder, “What’s wrong?” What is this team’s malfunction that they just can’t seem to sustain their regular-season success in the playoffs? And now that the Caps have scuffled for a third straight season against a lower-seeded team, it seems that the problem is practically part of this team’s genetic make-up.

The big picture is not a pretty one. And viewed as a whole, it’s something that could provoke demanding Caps owner Ted Leonsis to reach for the whitewash rather than some touch-up paint this offseason.

In my mind, that would be a mistake.

Break down the first three games against the Bolts and you’ll see they very easily could have fallen in the Caps favor. A fluke goal deflects over Caps netminder Michal Neuvirth to provide the tying marker in Game 1.

Another deflection off Caps defenseman Mike Green accounted for Tampa’s second goal in Game 2, a contest in which Washington outplayed its foe for all but the final shift in OT.

Even with a disallowed goal and a Tampa marker that probably should have been waved off, Game 3, should have been on lockdown, but the Caps’ lapsed and gave up two critical, third-period goals in under 25 seconds … that was really the first unforgivable sin the Caps have committed in this series.

But that sin is one that put Washington in a 3-0 ravine. If the series stood at 2-1 – in either team’s favor – heading into Game 4 Wednesday night, the series has a very different feel to it. I know a loss in the playoffs will be chalked up to yet another disappointment for the East’s top seed, but when it comes to building a team, you can’t just focus on the end result.

If you continue to look at the trees instead of the forest – albeit a forest that’s on fire – you can see a whole slew of minor factors that have contributed to the Caps’ current predicament. Studly young D-men John Carlson and Karl Alzner have seemed to flag over the past two games, looking increasingly tired as they endure their longest NHL seasons to date.

Veteran Jason Arnott, who was sensational in Round 1 against the Rangers, has been absent in the production department without Alex Semin on his flank and seems to be ailing after battling late-season injuries. Green continues to be dinged up, missing most of the third period with a “lower body” injury in Game 3, which may have helped contribute to the Caps’ inability to keep the Bolts out of their end as Washington skated with just five defensemen.

Study the picture closely and you’ll see it’s just been several small cracks that have led to the Caps’ current fissure. Whether or not Leonsis sees it that way will likely only be known once the team begins its offseason plans. But before he starts tearing anything down, I’d caution the Caps’ owner that what the team may need most of all is a combination of a little more experience for its young guns and a little more puck luck might not hurt either.