Win or lose Game 7, Caps are in trouble again

By Dan Di Sciullo
NHL Editor

Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Perhaps the Washington Capitals have been hearing the voice from "Field of Dreams", because lately they keep going the distance.

For a fourth straight postseason series, Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals will have a do-or-die Game 7 standing between them and advancing to the next round. In all four of those series, Washington was the higher seed, but the disparity has never been greater than it this year, as the top-seeded Capitals have been pushed to the limit by the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens.

Even though Washington has blown a 3-1 series lead against the Canadiens, it still seems likely that the Caps will pull through with a Game 7 win on home ice Wednesday. However, even if they do manage to finally finish off the Habs, the fact that Ovechkin and Co. are in this position does not bode well for the club's Stanley Cup hopes this spring.

The Caps have lost two of their three Game 7s in the past two years, beginning with an overtime decision to Philadelphia in the decisive contest of the 2008 Eastern Conference quarterfinals, and ending with last spring's embarrassing 6-2 loss to Pittsburgh in the second round. Washington's lone series win in the Ovechkin era came in the 2008 East quarters, when the Capitals overcame a three games to one deficit to eventually oust the New York Rangers.

Not to completely overlook what Montreal has done right in this series, but the Capitals are clearly beating themselves. They fired 54 shots at Jaroslav Halak in Game 6, but wound up losing by a 4-1 count.

Mike Green is too one-dimensional.
Washington also went 0-for-6 on the power play in that game and has just one goal on 30 opportunities with the man advantage in this series. That's a success rate of just 3.3 percent in the series, after leading the NHL by scoring on 25.2 percent of its chances during the regular season.

The deadly power play was a big reason Washington set franchise records in points (121) and wins (54) and earned the club's first Presidents' Trophy, which assures the Caps of home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs but won't be worth much if they lose Wednesday at the Verizon Center.

Of course, if the Caps do lose on Wednesday, Ovechkin will get most of the blame, but with five goals and nine points in the series already, it's not like he's been a no-show.

Still, Ovie is the face of the franchise and should shoulder a large part of the blame. Although another Russian winger, Alexander Semin, who has just one assist in this series after scoring a career-best 40 goals during the regular season, may shield Ovechkin from too much heat this time around.

But if I had to identify one thing as the real problem for the Caps (and it will continue to be an issue should the club advance), it's on defense.

Mike Green is a star on the Washington blue line, but as has been pointed out many times before, the club's leader in ice time is too one-dimensional. Green, who has three assists in this series, is often only effective when putting points on the board and, even though he is a Norris Trophy finalist for the second straight year, he simply hasn't developed his defensive game.

Green is just not the go-to stopper that is often needed to close out series. Don't believe me? Then ask Team Canada GM Steve Yzerman and his cohorts, who didn't think Green was even one of the seven-best options on D for the eventual gold-medal winning squad.

To make matters worse, Tom Poti, who garners the second-most ice time among Washington defensemen, is out for Game 7, and possibly for two-to-three weeks, with an eye injury. Poti was once known as an offense-only defenseman, but he has become more responsible since joining the Caps a few years back and will be missed.

But the Caps' defensive problems don't stop with the players who have a "D" listed after their name. Washington's forwards also need to take part of the blame for failing to shut down the opposition.

The goaltending situation is also not as sturdy in D.C. as one would like to see from a true Cup contender. Caps head coach Bruce Boudreau, who may be looking for a job if Washington loses on Wednesday, has compounded the problems in my estimation by losing faith in his netminders too soon.

Jose Theodore was Washington's No. 1 goaltender heading into the playoffs in each of the last two years, yet he has only started three postseason games in a Caps uniform. Boudreau made the switch to rookie Semyon Varlamov after just one start by Theodore last year against the Rangers and Theodore hasn't been seen in the current playoffs since getting yanked eight minutes into Game 2.

The panic moves by Boudreau cannot help to ease the tension in Washington's locker room and it also makes it difficult for the coach to go back to Theodore, should he choose to do so in Game 7 or in the next round. Theodore could respond well after being given up on for a second straight year, or he could fall flat on his face from lack of confidence.

Despite the above factors, in reality it makes no sense that such a talented team should be taken to the limit by a No. 8 seed.

Everything about the Caps' recent playoff performances is hard to figure out. The club has arguably the most talented offensive players at their positions in Ovechkin and Green, but the team can't seem to score when they need goals the most. The team plays good defense during the regular season, but falls apart once the seven-game series start.

Perhaps the Caps can win on Wednesday and then build some momentum towards a deeper playoff run. But even if they do manage to make it to the Eastern Conference finals before a team like Pittsburgh ousts them, the goal for Washington is obviously a Stanley Cup, and simply moving one round further is just not good enough at this point. At this stage, it's really difficult to envision this team winning the Cup.

Maybe losing on Wednesday would ultimately be a positive for the Caps, a case of hitting rock-bottom to ram home the point that this team is just not built to win it all. That's not what Washington fans want to hear, but ignoring the fact that there is something wrong in D.C. is just not an option any more.

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Dan Di Sciullo
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