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Hockey Notes

Leonsis brutally frank about Capitals’ collapse

By Kevin Paul Dupont
May 8, 2011

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Until a team makes it to the conference finals (a.k.a. the Stanley Cup semifinals), its playoff aspirations never really mature beyond “Off Broadway’’ status. Clearly, that cold reality was running through the fingertips of Capitals owner Ted Leonsis when he decided to tickle his computer keyboard immediately after his club’s wipeout Wednesday night at the hands of the Lightning.

“The wheels fell off for us,’’ lamented Leonsis, a Wang Labs marketing guy prior to his strike-it-filthy-rich days with AOL. “No doubt about that. I am stunned we were swept in Round 2.’’

Leonsis went on to offer an apology to Capitals fans — quite refreshing, and something we expected here last spring when the Bruins so infamously flamed out in Round 2 after holding a 3-0 series lead over the Flyers.

Some of the Black-and-Gold pompom shakers among the fandom and media didn’t understand that line of reasoning — because rarely is heard a discouraging word on Causeway Street. But there are times when an apology, or at least a substantive explanation, needs to be heard by the paying customers. Especially so in a town that has been waiting 40 years for a Stanley Cup parade, and especially so in a town that knows good hockey from bad hockey.

So, good for Leonsis for getting to it in his “Ted’s Take’’ blog. We know the Islanders wouldn’t suffer that kind of scrutiny and honesty among their Uniondale blog dogs.

The Capitals, noted Leonsis, were short on “energy and production’’ and they “weren’t resilient.’’

But his most damning line was also his most accurate: “Their role players outplayed our highest-paid players.’’

When that happens, and it did, then something has to change. That one line should be a clear indication that every job, from general manager (George McPhee) to coach (Bruce Boudreau) and right through the roster, is up for grabs.

The only non-negotiable in Washington is Alex Ovechkin, who wasn’t himself throughout the two rounds — as he wasn’t himself throughout the season — although he at least offered some passion and pop (nine games, 10 points, including 2-2—4 in the embarrassing sweep by the Bolts).

Ovie didn’t do enough, but he remains the face of the franchise, he is only 25, and he is a unique, dynamic entity in what has turned into a cookie-cutter league that has most players playing the same way, saying the same things, and coaches acting as their enabling metronomes. Here in Boston, the message is so controlled that the assistant coaches aren’t allowed to talk with the media. Not even nose twitches, knowing nods, or winky winks! Oh, the palace secrets they could share, especially if they were subjected to standard media waterboarding tactics, or perhaps a couple of postgame beers.

We’ve said in this space for some time that the Capitals, under Boudreau’s riverboat tutelage, have lacked a fall-back defensive strategy in the postseason. When the going gets tough — as it almost always does in April, May, and June — the Capitals keep on keepin’ on with what worked in October, November, and December.

But it’s a different game in the spring (less entertainment, more grinding, just heavier), and it calls for more astute strategies from behind the bench, different roles from the working help, and of course top-notch goaltending. Puck-stopping has been a perennial bugaboo in D.C., although it was a touch better this time around in the hands of 23-year-old Michal Neuvirth (nine games, 2.34, .912, 4-5). But still, not good enough.

The scoring game really fell apart around Alexander Semin (nine games, 6 points, and only 1-1—2 in Round 2) and Nicklas Backstrom (nine games, 2 points, one assist in the second round). A total of 3 points from those two when the pressure was high. Backstrom, by the way, has nine years remaining on a deal that pays $6.7 million per season). Pretty clear, with only Ovechkin operating with much of a pulse, the Capitals again weren’t going anywhere.

The Capitals are now 17-20 in the postseason under Boudreau and have never made it out of Round 2 in his four seasons. It’s not unlike the situation here with Claude Julien, who went into this postseason needing to advance to the Cup semis if he hoped to be back in September. Just business.

Had Julien’s Bruins caught the Lightning in Round 2, he could be pointed out the door this morning, although he has a far more conservative, defensively engineered squad to oversee than Boudreau has in Washington. They would likely do well to borrow from one another’s tool kit, but I suspect neither would do so without first sticking an EpiPen deep into their thighs. As for what the rosters have to offer, imagine where the Capitals might be right now if they had Zdeno Chara parked behind their blue line for 25-30 minutes a night the last four years.

No immediate word out of D.C. about what/who will go/stay. McPhee said Thursday, less than 24 hours after the knockout, that he expects Boudreau to return. Boston general manager Peter Chiarelli said that in the hours after Dave Lewis’s one year as coach here was finished, only to deep-six Lewis roughly 60 days later.

Something has to change in Washington. It’s just not working when it needs to work the most. Blogger/owner/truthsayer Leonsis has all but written it on the subway walls and tenement halls. And it could be that McPhee will have to send his coach packing, or join him on the subway. For the Cup semis, all they’re hearing each year at the Verizon Center are the sounds of silence.

CONN JOB?
Tampa rides savior Roloson Lightning goalie Dwayne Roloson (left) as the Conn Smythe winner for playoff MVP? Two rounds into the postseason, the pride of UMass-Lowell has at least one padded leg up on the award.

What’s all the magic about in Tampa?

“I just think it comes down to not being afraid to lose,’’ said Roloson after the Lightning dismissed the Capitals.

Like the Bruins with Tim Thomas, the Lightning have gone exclusively with Roloson in net during the postseason. He’ll enter the Cup semis this week with an 8-3 record, a 2.01 goals-against mark, and a stingy .941 save percentage.

All this might sound familiar. Roloson, from Simcoe, Ontario, had the Oilers on a roll in the 2006 playoffs and was their exclusive backstop heading into the Cup finals vs. Carolina. With the score tied at 4-4 in Game 1, Oilers defenseman Marc-Andre Bergeron banged into Andrew Ladd, sending the Hurricanes forward crashing into Roloson, wrecking the goalie’s right knee. Ty Conklin took his spot in relief.

“Goalie’s not good,’’ said then-Oiler coach Craig MacTavish, another UMass-Lowell alum. “Won’t be back in the series.’’

He wasn’t back, and the Oilers lost in seven games. Roloson hadn’t seen a minute of postseason play again until last month, having toiled the last four years with the DNQ Oilers and Islanders.

The Lightning were going nowhere this season with Mike Smith and Dan Ellis tending their net. Prior to the Jan. 1 trade with the Islanders to acquire Roloson for defensive prospect Ty Wishart, they ranked eighth in scoring (3.05 goals per game), but a lowly 26th in goals-against (3.08).

“Great pickup for them,’’ said Thomas after the trade. “He could make them a favorite.’’

ETC.
Fingers point Ference’s way Loads of hate e-mails directed my way from Canadiens fans objecting to the take here last Sunday on P.K. Subban’s blatant fakery in Game 7 of the Montreal-Boston series. The vast majority rationalized Subban’s embarrassing behavior, or attempted to deflect it or justify it, by noting how Andrew Ference flipped off the Bell Centre crowd after his goal up there earlier in the series. Spot-on, Habs fans, with that criticism of his crude act. He not only insulted the crowd and the viewing audience, he also denigrated the Spoked-B sweater and the rest of the NHLPA rank-and-file. He only added to the insult by trying to explain that his finger got stuck. Is that a man-up? Still, one man’s idiocy does not mitigate another’s fakery. Subban is both an abundant talent and a “little fake artist’’ (to borrow a term from NHL disciplinarian Colin Campbell). Meanwhile, the Habs have bigger fish to fry than the flopping Subban. GM Pierre Gauthier is staring at nine unrestricted free agents, six of them blue liners, including Andrei Markov, Roman Hamrlik (Subban’s partner in fakery), and Hal Gill.

Sabres may go shopping Good move by the Sabres last weekend, extending Lindy Ruff’s stay as bench boss. He’ll enter his 14th season in October. With cash no longer an issue, thanks to deep-pocketed owner Terry Pegula, GM Darcy Regier will have some flexibility in the free agent market come July 1. UFA Tim Connolly’s $4.5 million cap hit likely will disappear. Mike Grier ($1.4 million) is undergoing knee and wrist surgery, and figures, at age 36, that Buffalo is the only place he cares to play. “If not, that’ll probably be it,’’ he told the Buffalo News last week. The Sabres have the goalie (Ryan Miller) and suitable forwards to compete. If Regier is going to shop with that Connolly-Grier combined $5.9 million, he’ll likely look to shore up the back line. Behemoth Tyler Myers was the 2010 Calder winner (top rookie), but his performance fell back this season. One or two stable, experienced hands back there could provide a huge lift and make Pegula look like this year’s Jeff Vinik (see: Tampa).

Tough loss in Chicago Sure looks like the Blackhawks should have held on to goalie Antti Niemi, now riding high with the Sharks. Not that goaltending was the sole reason Chicago couldn’t slip by Vancouver in Round 1. Following the Game 7 loss, coach Joel Quenneville said his squad needs more players who are “tougher to play against.’’ It’s a common refrain from coaches when they realize their roster lacks the muscle-and-courage factor it takes to win a Cup. It would have been wildly unpopular in Chicago, following last year’s Cup, but they might have been better to deal Patrick Kane and kept a bunch of the guys they discarded, especially Dustin Byfuglien and Niemi. Kane is a slick, speedy talent, and a big factor in why they won in 2010, but the Hawks lost a lot of substance in their castaways. All reports have the Hawks parting with Marty Turco after his one year as Corey Crawford’s partner in net.

Impact player Ex-NHLer Keith Primeau, brother of former Bruin Wayne Primeau, helped roll out a website (stopconcussions.com) to raise awareness about the detection and care of head injuries. Keith noted the need for players — and fans — to stop thinking it’s great to see players sprawled on the ice after getting crushed by huge (often unnecessary) hits. Maybe that’s the first sign that someone with game cred finally realizes there has to be a cultural shift within hockey. Big hits are fine, and injuries will happen. But there is no denying that headhunting and hitting for the sake of injury have crept into the game like a virus.

Loose pucks Amid all the euphoria from over-the-top Bruins fans, I’ll just say that I think it’s unwise to leave Tuukka Rask at the end of the bench for every minute of the playoffs. A 3-0 series lead over the Flyers should have been enough to earn the talented Finn a “spacer’’ start in Tim Thomas’s place . . . Ex-Bruin Marco Sturm chipped in with a meager 1-2—3 in his nine playoff games with Washington. Sturm’s days of earning $3.5 million a year are over. Maybe a club such as Columbus or Ottawa offers him $800,000 on a one-year deal. He’ll turn 33 prior to the start of training camp . . . We didn’t need to see the dysfunctional Boston power play to underscore the point, but it has been painfully evident throughout the playoffs that the NHL needs to modify the shorthanded team’s freedom to fire the puck 180-200 feet down the ice. More power-play goals would be scored if the shorthanded team at least had to get the puck across the defensive blue line before hammering it down the other end. More teams also would look to score shorthanded . . . Ex-Bruins goalie coach Joe Bertagna is approaching his 40th summer of running goalie camps around the Hub of Hockey. This summer’s vulcanized crusade has July-August spots open in Hingham, Marlborough, Bedford, Burlington, Byfield, and North Andover. Check out: bertagnagoaltending.com for dates and rates . . . Lots of castaways on that Tampa roster, including superstar Martin St. Louis, who was considered too small to draft and dismissed as a failed project after three years in Calgary. One of Tampa’s postseason stars thus far: ex-Islander pick Sean Bergenheim, a Finnish winger who had two goals in the 5-3 clincher vs. the Capitals. He is 7-1—8 in 11 games, tops among the team’s goal scorers.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com; material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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