Rethinking Reirden

“It’s the same ol’, same ol’ situation.”
-Motley Crue, “Same Old Situation”

The Washington Capitals haven’t won a playoff series since the 2018 Stanley Cup Final, and it is time for their third coach since then.

Head coach Todd Reirden was fired Sunday after his second consecutive season being ousted from the playoffs by a lower seed. After inheriting a Stanley Cup roster, he went 5-10 in playoff games—including this year’s variant round robin—with no series wins.

Though Reirden posted a .642 regular-season win percentage and earned two division crowns, this still wasn’t a rash decision by Captials GM Brain MacLellan because plenty of other NHL coaches had quick tenures for lesser forms of disappointment. As a recent example, Gerrard Gallant coached the Vegas Golden Knights to said 2018 Stanley Cup Final during the franchise’s inaugural season, and also made the playoffs his second year to prove 2018 wasn’t a fluke. He was fired in January 2020 after his playoff-bound Knights suffered a four-game losing streak. What’s he doing now, anyway?

Also, Capitals fans have earned the right to be impatient. From 1983-1996, the Capitals never missed the playoffs, but only once made the conference finals in 1990. It wasn’t until 1998 the franchise returned to the Eastern Conference Finals and eventually reached the Stanley Cup Final only to be swept by the Detroit Red Wings.

After a rebuild and landing a once-in-a-lifetime talent, more of the same followed:

From 2008-2017, the Capitals only missed the playoffs once, earning two Presidents’ Trophies, but again failed to advance beyond the second round. Of the coaches during that span, Bruce Boudreau won two playoff series in four years, Dale Hunter one in his relief stint at the helm, and Barry Trotz seven in four seasons—four of which came when he led the franchise to their first and only Stanley Cup title.

Speaking of Trotz, he has gone on to win three playoff series as head coach of the New York Islanders—the same Islanders that forced the Capitals right out of the bubble last Thursday night. What about the key players who have moved on from that 2018 team? During the 2020 playoffs, Jay Beagle advanced to the second round with the Vancouver Canucks, Andre Burakovsky and Philipp Grubauer advanced with a dominant Colorado Avalanche team, Matt Niskanen advanced with the top-seeded Philadelphia Flyers, and Chandler Stephenson advanced with the Knights–who seem to be heading in the opposite direction of the Capitals since their 2018 championship bout.

Everyone listed has one commonality: more playoff series wins than Reirden.

Capitals fans are left with confusing and empty familiarity once more. The easy reaction is to vet for excuses of why they yet again left the playoffs early. There were botched breakaways and shots fired wide of open nets, Nicklas Backstrom missed most of the series against the Islanders, John Carlson wasn’t completely healthy, Lars Eller wasn’t in a hockey-state-of-mind, Ilya Samsonov’s injury left Braden Holtby without a solid backup solution in net or perhaps the team was just tired of living in a quarantined bubble with friendly foes off-ice. They’re better than that, though, and fans are aware of the fact.

From their overused non-bubble living rooms, supporters watched the team fail to construct and capitalize on enough even-strength chances. They were outshot by the Islanders 110-95 in four losses. This problem goes back to last season’s early exit against the Carolina Hurricanes, however. In their four losses in that series, the Capitals were out-shot 147-111. Another noticeable element to their underachievement was the lack of inspiration and urgency. They appeared dilapidated with misplaced passion, but that also isn’t an excuse because all teams were in the same situation entering the qualifiers and round robin. They looked decrepit if exaggerated.

The window is closing faster this time because the stars are aging, and not only do they need solid blue line depth, the lines need to get younger on the offensive side of the puck. Jakub Vrána, the team’s heralded youth, had zero points and a -6 rating in the series, and since his goal in Game 5 of the 2018 Final, he has recorded no points and has a -8 rating in 15 playoff games. The average age for the Capitals front line skaters is 29.4, and as the Flyers, Hurricanes and Islanders continue to get stronger, the Capitals may be fighting for a wild card spot next season rather than another division title if changes aren’t made.

It starts with the captain and coach, and fans know Alexander Ovechkin doesn’t lack drive or intensity or leadership, but it was apparent he lacked adaptation, direction and support from the bench during the 2020 playoffs–and the front office made the right choice in firing Reirden.

Whether it’s a subtle rebuild, rediscovery or reinvention, the Capitals need to start acting like they care again. With one year left on Ovechkin’s contract and more uncertainty looming, Fans would rather have a second cup with a shortened-season asterisk than the team’s only title being an anomaly.

Epic Hockey Games

“You’re as cold as ice, you’re willing to sacrifice our love.”
-Foreigner, “Cold As Ice”

It was a marathon on ice. The Columbus Blue Jackets and Tampa Bay Lightning battled for nearly three games to earn one win. The Lightning’s Brayden Point ripped a wrister over the right shoulder of Blue Jackets goalie Joonas Korpisalo in the fifth overtime to give the Lightning a 3-2 victory in the first game of the series—and also the first game of the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

What a moment for the NHL; what a moment for the fans; what a moment for society.

Tuesday’s match at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto was the fourth longest NHL playoff game in history, clocking in at 150:27 of ice time. It was exhausting to watch the players; they skated with heavy legs, their backs bending more during each sudden death session, their sight either reaching the ice or ceiling during the few moments they were relieved to catch their breath. Yet, they played and fans watched—at home—pondering if they would have to call into work today—at least residents of Raleigh and Boston have excuses at the moment. The Carolina Hurricanes and Boston Bruins were slated to play on the same sheet of ice after Columbus and Tampa Bay, but their game was postponed until this morning (ongoing at the time of this post).

The puck dropped at 3:09 p.m. ET. Grayish-blue covers stretched over each section of seats, bright banner graphics filled dark spaces opposite the cameras and crowd noise was filtered in to simulate the aura of playoff hockey. By 9:22 p.m. ET, at the 10:27 mark in the fifth extra period, the fact there were no fans present was forgotten. The Lightning celebrated with a burst of energy from the bench and the Blue Jackets suffered through bittersweet devastation, the skaters leaning helplessly at the waist and letting their momentum slowly coast their worn bodies to the locker room.

It was a fairly normal game to start. Pierre-Luc Dubois gave the Blue Jackets an early first period lead on the power play, but Point evened the score four minutes later. Oliver Bjorkstrand heaved a shot from the boards late in the second that squeezed past perennial Vezina finalist Andrei Vasilevskiy in what should have been a routine save. The Lightning trailed 2-1 at intermission, and a recollection of 2019 was looming.

Last year, Tampa Bay was the favorite to win the Stanley Cup, and the city, players and staff believed they were due. The franchise won their first and only championship in 2004, but had made the Eastern Conference finals four times since 2011. They reached the Stanley Cup final just once, losing to the Chicago Blackhawks in 2015. It had been long enough; it was time—until the John Tortorella-led Blue Jackets swept their dreams right out of the playoffs in what was considered one of the bigger upsets in playoff history. Tortorella coached Tampa Bay to the title in 2004.

The rivalry is there and it’s fresh, but the Lightning were on the brink of letting it be one-sided last night. They desperately needed this win for morale. A little luck helped the cause 23 seconds into the third period. Ryan McDonagh fired a shot on net and Yanni Gourde’s resilience in the crease caused the puck to trickle under Korpisalo’s torso and touch off his leg, barely crossing the goal line.

Then it got less normal.

Korpisalo ended the evening with an NHL record 85 saves, at least one short of what he hoped, and some skaters on both teams eclipsed 60 minutes of ice time. With 17 seconds remaining in the fourth overtime, when normal people probably would have been hospitalized from exertion, Liam Foudy and Mikhail Sergachev raced each other in full sprint for an icing call. It was seemingly a meaningless play, but it showed something vital in regard to social attitude.

Despite the fatigue, the immense pressure these athletes put on their bodies last night for their glory and our entertainment, they gave it their all until the end, and the adrenaline may be from the pure joy of playing again. Relevant sport is back as much as it’s allowed, and society, no matter if they follow sports or not, should be gracious for what that means. It’s progression; it’s getting back to normal; it’s showing we’re all relevant.

It just took an incredibly rare feat to prove that.

Game 2 of the series is Thursday at 3 p.m. ET. Clear your schedule, but there’s a chance it’s clear already.

My Annual Washington Capitals Post-Playoff Post

“Just when you think you’re in control, just when you think you’ve got a hold, just when you get on a roll, oh, here it goes, here it goes, here it goes again.”
-OK Go, “Here It Goes Again”

There was a nice break from disappointment in last year’s championship post, but old habits die hard for the Washington Capitals. As a fan, another early exit stings, however, I’m not about to claim it hurts less because they won the Stanley Cup last year. In fact, this one will linger a little longer due to wasted opportunities, a sense of urgency for the dwindling hopes of a dynasty, and the eerie fall into familiarity.

Okay, the Pittsburgh Penguins getting swept helps a little, but it was by a Barry Trotz-led New York Islanders squad that was supposed to be garbage this year.

And the stinging returns once more.

Does experience actually matter or have the Caps reverted back to underachieving heartbreak? The team was essentially the same group that won the coveted cup last year, so one would assume that they would be able to hold a 2-0 series advantage against arguably the 16th best team in the playoffs: a Carolina Hurricanes team they swept 4-0 in the regular season. Or they would at the very least be able to hold a two goal lead at home in a game seven that shouldn’t have been happening to begin with. Fans and analysts can claim that T.J. Oshie’s game four injury played a vital part in losing four out of their last five games, and Michel Kempny’s exit before the playoffs even started doomed the squad from making another deep run, but those are just excuses. The Hurricanes had injuries as well, and even more players have been added to the list in their second-round series against the Islanders—a series they lead 3-0 at the moment.

So are the Hurricanes that good? No. Sebastian Aho is pretty decent, but he can barely be considered a top-50 talent. So are they young? Sure, but that’s not an excuse either because their youngest star, 19-year-old Andrei Svechnikov, was knocked out early in game three against the Caps courtesy of a few powerful rights by Alexander Ovechkin, and just returned to the lineup last night.  The two players who really stabbed a dagger in the hearts of the Caps organization and fan base were Jordan Stall and Justin Williams, 30 and 37 respectively.

What’s the secret to the Hurricanes’ success then? It has to be momentum, and this is why the Stanley Cup playoffs are great, but also devastating at the same time. This has been a wild (no pun intended) year so far; all four wild card teams moved on to the second round, and only three higher seeds won their first-round series, and two of them had to clinch in game sevens, including a miraculous comeback by the San Jose Sharks over the Vegas Golden Knights. Out of the four wild card teams, the Hurricanes are the one team that can’t truly validate their magic.

Everyone is aware of how great the Tampa Bay Lightning played this season (and everyone is still aware of the President’s Trophy curse). Maybe it’s shocking the Columbus Blue Jackets swept the Lightning in the first round, but I didn’t find it surprising that they won the series. They have a superstar in Artemi Panarin, one of the league’s best young defensemen in Seth Jones, and all the acquisitions they made at the trade deadline were bound to pay off. In fact, they may be the favorite to come out of the Eastern Conference at the moment, leading their series against the Boston Bruins, 2-1. The Colorado Avalanche and the Dallas Stars both have perennial superstars as well: Nathan MacKinnon, Jaime Benn, and Tyler Seguin to name a few. The Avalanche have a top-ten offense, tallying 260 regular season goals, and the Stars allowed the fewest goals in the league (202) due to a stout defense and Vezina Trophy-finalist Ben Bishop.

With this being said, the Caps failed to take advantage of said wild situation. With most of the top competition ousted, including the pesky Penguins, they had a grand opportunity at being able to chant “back to back” as Oshie preached during last’s year celebration.

Perhaps they were a tad too lax throughout the series, perhaps they’ve adopted this young societal mindset of full entitlement expected after little to no accomplishment, but there needs to be some urgency if the organization wants to take advantage of a window that has been closing for over half a decade now.

Isabelle Khurshudyan, Washington Post- Capitals prepare for offseason focused on the roster’s fringes rather than its core

The core isn’t that young and it showed in both overtimes of game seven against the Hurricanes as stamina was an issue. Nine players are set to become restricted or unrestricted free agents, and 2020 is a pivotal year for stars Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby to receive new contracts, not to mention Ovechkin’s contract is up in 2021. If the Caps are to extend their title window, they need to start acting like 2018 wasn’t some fluke.

David Hookstead, The Daily Caller- TV ratings for the NBA playoffs down 19%, NHL playoffs up 1%

Every Stanley Cup playoff game is a battle; it’s not like the predictable NBA playoffs which can be guessed after the ball is tipped at the start of the season. The parity and intensity of the NHL playoffs are on full display this year, leaving Caps fans saying, “Here it goes again.” Winning a championship doesn’t automatically change everything.

Good luck to the Hurricanes because they’re going to need it; next year they will revert back to their normal as well. Unfortunately for the Caps, the Blue Jackets will be way better, the Islanders should improve as well, and the Penguins will still be around—and that’s just in their division. The Montreal Canadians are on the rise, the Toronto Maple Leafs are a force, The Boston Bruins somehow continue to not get worse, and you don’t think the Lightning are really really pissed off right now—again?

Shout out to the Buffalo Sabres as well. They’re about due. Like, seriously, Buffalo.

Let’s not even get into how good the Western Conference will be.

The window is closing again, don’t let it shut.