Caps’ Stunning Loss is More Than Ovechkin, Boudreau

In many cases, there's no shame in losing in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Parity brings teams closer than ever, and the gap between the top seed and the eighth seed really isn't that much. Injuries, weird bounces, and just plain luck can affect much of the outcome. Of course, you have to play hard to win — coasting on skill doesn't cut it anymore.

You know where this is heading. If the Washington Capitals lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning in a gritty, hell-on-wheels seven-game battle, I don't think we'd be doing a forensic analysis on what went wrong. Even if the Caps still got swept, if they just fought tooth and nail in close battles and overtimes, it might be just one of those things where the final record doesn't reflect the quality of competition.

But this series sweep was as lopsided as the final count. The Caps only played one strong, complete game of the four; the other times, their meter flipped between dynamic and listless with a side-trip to confused. What went wrong? There's the question of Alex Ovechkin, but The Great Eight played a strong series. He may not have always made the right decisions, but you can't doubt that his heart used up its entire supply of desire (and perhaps next season Ovechkin will re-think trying to go coast to coast over and over when desperation mode hits). Ovechkin could certainly use some pointers about strategic decisions, but he left it all on the ice.

The finger pointing, then, turns to Ovechkin's supporting cast — namely, Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Semin. There are conflicting reports about whether Backstrom was hurt or not, but by all accounts, Semin was healthy. That's pretty damning, and Semin is living up to the old stereotype of "Skilled Enigmatic Russians Who Fold." Of course, history has given us plenty of examples of why that stereotype is wrong, but Semin still fits into that mold.

The question really is whether or not he can break it. As fans and pundits, we like to pigeonhole players into categories and labels. Leader, warrior, superstar — but how many of these were earned over time? Don't forget, it to Ken Hitchcock pushing Mike Modano's buttons to turn Modano from a slick-skating scorer into a complete player and champion. But that didn't happen overnight, and Modano had to hit a certain level of maturity where those messages could finally start sinking in.

Semin is at the start of the media's firing squad, but of course there are targets on players like Mike Green and Brooks Laich. This group has grown up and matured together, but the next step is going from team to winners together. Is Bruce Boudreau the right person to complete this step? Perhaps for some but maybe not for others. Boudreau's shown he can change his on-ice tactics by going from a run-and-gun squad to a more defensively driven team this year. This isn't about X's and O's, and for the Caps to get to the next level, the X's and O's start in the player's minds, not their positioning or breakout.

There are so many variables in play here. The right coach can connect with a player and accelerate this. Individual motivation, whether it's sparked from shame or desire, can take a player to the next level. Even things like statistics and money can factor into this.

Like everything else in life, sometimes people simply need to decide when they must require more of themselves. The Washington Capitals are at a crossroads. The good news is that they're still young. In fact, with the youth in net and on the blueline, it's easy to say that they're really just starting their journey and their Stanley Cup window is probably the next five years.

We know Alex Ovechkin will be there and it looks like Michal Neuvirth will be the man in net. As for everyone in between? Sometimes, it takes a few tries to truly learn the way to win. The problem for the Capitals is that regular season success, while enjoyable and certainly better than losing, just isn't enough anymore, and it will take another year to see if certain players have turned the corner.

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