Friday, May 17, 2013

The heartbreak of the Capitals

Wrote at the Washington Post, in the Comments section on Thomas Boswell's column, "Washington Capitals Playoff Exit:  A tradition that's getting old" :

My first comment:
"I follow tennis quite a bit. In singles tennis, you can see a player's mental state pretty readily. There have been numerous hard-fought five set (mens) matches, or three set women's matches, that were battles through the first 4 (2) sets, and which then turned into laughers, like 6-0 or 6-1, in the final set. Because in a hard-fought battle, every thing is razor sharp. Every point counts. The stress level is incredibly high when so much is riding on each swing of the racket.

But then... something goes wrong for one of the players. A call they thought was surely out was barely in. A fan yellls in the stands at the wrong time, disrupting a serve that turns into a double fault. They mishit an easy volley. SUDDENLY, in the player's mental state, everything is against them. Shots that were an inch in now fall an inch out. First serve lasers now are just long. They can't make that last step to make a return. And against them is an opponent that senses the desperation, the weakness, the errors creeping into the game, and their confidence soars. They blast away, and the opponent's weak resolve collapses. Match over.

Over and over in this series [Capitals vs. Rangers] we heard "hold serve" for the home wins. But we also heard "clinch in 6" when the Caps went back to NY. Yeah, even from Barry Melrose [ESPN hockey commentator]. They had the big MO, the confidence. Does anyone forget the nail-biting game 5 win? [Overtime win] Wasn't that mental toughness? However it happened, the refereeing in game 6 affected the outcome. The obvious interference on Perreault - not called (even he asked "Where's the penalty?"). The slew foot on Green. As one writer put it, were the Rangers such gentlemen? And the Caps lost a very close one, 1-0, creating an edgy mentality for Game 7. And when things started to go wrong in Game 7 (including an almost "I'm going to be a hero" moment for Wilson), it snowballed. They collapsed. Mental edge - pfft. 

Bos, remember the Cubbies? The Bartman ball? What happened after that?

My second comment:
Having said all that, what can be done differently? When does bad karma reverse itself? You never can know. The Red Sox [pro baseball team], famously, tantalized their fans with occasional World Series appearances - which they famously, heartbreakingly lost. They kept trying to build a team with skills and mental toughness not to give up. When you have that, sometimes luck finally lends a hand. Like Mariano Rivera walking Kevin Millar, 9th inning, Game 4, down 3-0. Like Dave Roberts making a steal, just barely beating a tag from an incredible Jose Posada throw. Winning that game, just introducing enough doubt into NYY [New York Yankees] that suddenly a team that always lost couldn't lose. And finally, after decades of infamous frustration, didn't.

Certainly, personnel-wise, Caps have a lot to think about. Cap space, age, prospects (or lack of them), injuries - all of these will figure into what they do going forward. There are no easy answers. I personally think that the main thing they really lacked this year was a true reliable second scoring threat. At times in the season I thought Brouwer was that (pardon me, where was HE in the playoffs? - I thought he filled the big body tough guy in front of the net role). We never will know what a healthy Erat might have contributed, but the second line of Ribeiro-Brouwer-Fehr didn't seem to be much of a factor. 

After their horrid start, this team could have packed it in and gone home early. They steadied and got some puck luck to get into the playoffs, and whatever is said about why, PK-ed a lot of minutes in the playoffs to get it to a game 7. There was one factor that was true the whole season; when they had a lot of PKs early, the offense rarely got on track during the game. I saw that happening against an effective Rangers shot-blocking D. 

Final thought: did Rangers crash the net and play tough around the net to win game 6? As I recall, it was a fortunate shot from the point that fell in that made the difference. 

No magic for the Caps.  [I'll write a bit more about magic and the Stanley Cup later this month.]

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