Detroit and Washington Trail 0-2; What Must Change? A Roster Spot, and An Attitude

The Detroit Red Wings and Washington Capitals have been pegged by a good portion of hockey followers to win their respective conferences for the past four years.  Of course, Detroit has had this status for much longer, as they have made the playoffs for 20 straight seasons now.  But since 2007-08, when the Capitals first qualified for the playoffs in the post-lockout (a.k.a. Ovechkin) era, the Capitals have had a block of support from those predicting the eastern conference.

Both teams found themselves back in the mix in 2011, scoring division titles and sporting an 8-1 record in the first round, collectively.  But now the rock is sliding toward each team, and their backs are up against the proverbial hard place.  Both teams trail their conference semifinal series two games to none, and both teams have something of a “final go at it” feel to them.

This last ditch effort mentality in Detroit is obvious: the team’s age is frequently cited, and almost as frequently exaggerated.  Nick Lidstrom seems likely to head home to Sweden after these playoffs are over, and the general feeling is that if these Red Wings can’t win the west with Lidstrom, they almost certainly can’t do it without him.  His $6 million in salary would open up, but not many (if any) general managers would sell Lidstrom for $6 million, because it’s impossible to use that money to fill the gap left by his departure.  So while most of the team’s important players are locked up at least through next season, it would be hard to foresee a 2011-12 that would not include Lidstrom on the Red Wings roster, and yet see the team compete for a conference title.  Hence, the time is now.

And while Washington’s youth makes it seem like they should have many more chances, this season has to have a little bit of a now-or-never element for head coach Bruce Boudreau.  I do not think that Boudreau’s job should be in danger this offseason.  Boudreau helped the Capitals pick themselves up after a forgettable first half of this season, and he did so while changing the entire squad’s mindset from free-flowing, lamp lighting offense to accountable and gritty two-way play with an emphasis on defense.  And it worked.  The Capitals again gained their one seed, but this time showed the focus and mettle to dispatch of a team that had previously torched them on many occasions in the New York Rangers.

But now, we’ve come to the same point.  Despite all of Washington’s supposed responsibility and playoff readiness, they still find themselves staring up from an 0-2 hole and having to travel to a division rival’s building, where they will play on two consecutive nights (nice scheduling, NHL).  It wouldn’t add much insight to say the Caps need to win one of these next two games, so I won’t bother saying it.  The biggest game of the Caps’ season comes Tuesday night, because like any team ever, you don’t want to fall down 0-3.  On top of that, a Game 3 win would set the table for the opportunity to even the series and create some doubt in Tampa’s minds, much like Boston did by going into Montreal and taking Games 3 and 4 to even their first round series.  And while I think momentum has become extremely overrated in today’s NHL, it is worth considering that most home seeds who host Game 5 of a tied series after falling behind 0-2 end up winning the best of seven.  Most of this is probably due to the higher seed being a better team, but perhaps part of it is the deflation of the upstarts blowing their 2-0 golden goose.

In order to win Game 3 and make all of this relevant, Washington needs to avoid panic mode and simply play the responsible, hard-nosed hockey that took them into the east’s top seed.  Another move that many people would scoff at, but Boudreau should consider, is making defenseman Mike Green a healthy scratch.  Most people are aware of his fantasy value, due to Green personifying the Capitals’ shoot first, watch your goalie try to make saves by himself second mentality of the past few years.  But while the team has reinvented itself, Green has not.  In Game 2, Green was directly responsible for the overtime goal by neither playing the shot nor the pass in a 2 on 1 against him.  This is the kind of defense that doesn’t make it out of college or juniors.  On top of this laughable display of “defense,” Green also was the one who kicked in Tampa’s second goal of the game, albeit partly due to bad luck.  Green was racing to get back to cancel out the recipient of a centering pass when the puck found his skate and redirected past goalie Michal Neuvirth.  That play alone isn’t bad enough to warrant a benching, but when it’s added to Green’s body of work, I think the team would be better off not having to worry about accounting for Green’s lack of ability to pull his own weight defensively.  Part of being able to play an aggressive style in the neutral zone and in both ends hinges on the idea that a player has full confidence that his teammates are doing their jobs.  I don’t see how the other four players on the ice with Green can have that confidence in him, although nobody would ever admit it.

As bad as going on the road down 0-2 seems, I actually think the Detroit Red Wings are in worse shape coming home with that deficit than the Caps are.  Why, you ask?  Because San Jose has established themselves recently as simply better than Detroit.  Following last year’s 4-1 series victory for San Jose, many in the Detroit camp, including myself, were offering the same stats and excuses.  First, the Red Wings were too tired.  Well, that kind of plays into who is a better team, wouldn’t you say?  Second, the Red Wings won the total goal count of the series by 1, due to their 5-goal victory pinned between four 1-goal defeats.  Again, it’s best of seven games, not total goals in 300 minutes, and everybody knows the rules coming in.

This year was supposed to be different.  The fresh and rested Red Wings were supposed to show the playoff choking Sharks how it’s really done, and that last year San Jose was just lucky not to get Detroit’s best shot.  Well, what’s our excuse now?  I’ve got one actually, and it’s simple: San Jose is a little bit better hockey team than Detroit is.

The numbers don’t lie either.  In the last 12 games between these two teams, San Jose has won 10 of them.  The definition of insanity with the widest acceptance is now “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”  Well, then I guess all of us Red Wing fans are insane, because we’re seeing the same dispatching of our squad, but we still can’t come out and say why it’s happening.  Some blame the refs.  Please.  Others point to the fact that this series is not in crisis for Detroit yet, because they’ve only lost two road games, and each by a score of only 2-1.  I agree, this does point to the fact that Detroit and San Jose are close to each other in ability to win, but Detroit was in the same exact position last year, and laid an egg at home in Game 3 to blow a lead and lose in overtime to more or less end their season.  So I’m confused as to why there is so much optimism surrounding the Red Wings this season.  It could be that coach Babcock and the veteran leaders have the right level-headed mindset that puts any listener at ease.  It could be that we’re buying in to the old adage that a series hasn’t really started until a road team wins a game.  And it could be that we still believe that San Jose will “choke” when it counts, or that their fans know nothing of hockey — both of which are based more in humor than reality.

But, it could also be that people still haven’t realized that San Jose is an elite NHL team, and that Detroit is in the unfamiliar position of needing to overachieve in order to prevail in a series.  The Red Wings have not been in this position since the 1999 and 2000 playoffs, when they were defeated by superior Colorado Avalanche teams.  One could point to the 2007 Anaheim Ducks, and I would lean toward agreeing, but even that year saw Anaheim and Detroit pretty close to evenly matched.  The same Wings team did go on to win the Cup in 2008, and almost in 2009.

This is something different.  This is the first time in a decade that the Red Wings find themselves banging their heads against the wall two years in a row as road seeds against the same superior opponent.  Whether or not the Red Wings realize their inferiority is irrelevant.  In fact, it’s probably better that they don’t.  But what’s unacceptable is their lazy, we-know-something attitude that they’ve played with in the last two games.  This disinterested, “everything’s alright because no matter what happens we still know we’re better and we create so many pretty opportunities that it doesn’t matter if anyone actually buries the puck in the net” mentality is complete nonsense.  And if it doesn’t turn around before Game 3, we’re going to see just another example of insanity to go along with a 3-0 San Jose lead.  You can’t do the same thing and expect to see different results.  Something needs to change.  That something is this attitude and mentality.  Carry yourselves like professionals — professionals who are at home down 0-2.  Play like you need to win.  If something changes, maybe the results will too.  And they better for the Red Wings’ sake, because 2 of the last 12 isn’t likely to yield the required 4 of the next 5 now.


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