Monday, April 11, 2011

So let's just try for the playoffs

Clearly I bailed on this blog early on. If you want to see a successful one, go to my good friend Meesh's blog:

So with it being the end of the season, I will at least try to do my own coverage for the last three games (and maybe tonight's), and then get into it for the playoffs. You can expect rants against certain players and coaches, as I am an angry fan. I am one of the fans that others complain about, because I do feel like I am owed a Stanley Cup. I expect the best from my team, and that means the best roster moves, the best lines, the best strategies, and the best effort from the best players. As the playoffs are nigh upon us, I will go into a lengthy rant against the person who is most on my Capitals Organization S-list: Bruce "Can-I-Get-Some-F***ing-Haagen-Dazs" Boudreau. A post discussing my picks for the best lines will be next.

"Holy f***ing sh**balls how the f*** could you
forget to bring me a snow cone you *******!?"
I don't know that there is another coach in the league who is this awful when it comes to picking goaltenders. I start with his first year coaching the Caps. He opened up the offense and let loose the dogs of war on the league, turning a sleeping giant into an epic offensive powerhouse, almost instantly upon his arrival. That was an amazing thing to witness. As was his mismanagement of his goalies come playoff time. Cristobal Huet had a fantastic streak of wins to end the season, largely without rest. So it wasn't really a big surprise when he allowed 16 goals in the first four games against the Flyers. What was a huge surprise was when Kolzig, who had played his entire professional career with the Caps, winning the Vezina one year and taking the Caps to the Stanley Cup finals in another, and through every other playoff series since the days of Jim Carey, did not get the start in Game 5. Or Game 6. Or Game 7. Or heck, even Game 3. So it was even less surprising when the Caps lost that series, although Game 7 was decided far far more by piss-poor officiating than anything else. And it was still less surprising when Kolzig, one of the game's all-time class acts, one of the most respected goaltenders and leaders in the league, ended his time with our beloved Caps by taking his name off his own locker after that series, and left the phone booth disgusted with the way he was treated. He was traded around a couple teams, barely playing in the NHL after that, and I can assure you that was the message he wanted to send: I know my time here is done, but as much as I love the nation's capital, I will not end my career with a coach who does not respect what I have given this team and will not play me in the playoffs in a scenario where the starter has been completely blasted by a lesser squad. Boudreau won the Jack Adams award for the league's best coach.

Fast forward another year to 08-09. The Capitals have a few goaltenders: the starter was former league MVP and Vezina winner Jose Theodore, primary backup Brent Johnson, first-round pick youngster Semyon/Semeon/Simeon/Simyon/You get the idea Varlamov, and fellow youngster Michal Neuvirth. Theodore picked up an impressive record of 32-17-5, but a far far less impressive GAA of 2.87 and a SV% of .900. His SV% put him at 37th best among teams' top-2 goalies in the league, and his GAA was not much better at 36th best. Johnson's and Neuvirth's stats were similar, while Varlamov posted impressive stats for a rookie in his 6 games. He posted a 4-0-1 record, 2.37 GAA and .918 SV%. Come playoffs, Theodore was the starter against the lower-ranked Rangers. He allowed 6 goals in his two starts for a loss in Game 1and being pulled in Game 2. Varlamov took over for the remainder of the postseason, playing more games during that span than he had in the regular season. After being pulled in a poor showing during Game 7 against the Penguins in the second round, Varlamov had a playoff record of 7-6-0, .918 SV%, 2.53 GAA, and 2 shutouts. Boudreau was hailed for his incredibly gutsy move of pulling his 30+ win starter and going with a largely untested kid who could not buy a beer to celebrate his first win. Though the playoffs ended in disappointment, the Caps had put on a good show and could walk away saying they lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champions in an epic series.
Likely just the first of many that game.

Next season saw Varlamov's chance to continue his postseason success and take the starting job away from Theodore. Unfortunately, Varly fell under the Verizon Center ice's spell, and was frequently sidetracked by groin injuries. Theodore remained the starter, even when Varlamov returned from injury. By this time, Theodore was referred to by fans with his new nickname, Three-or-more, as often as he was by his given name. He finished the season 30-7-7 with one shutout, a .911 SV%, and a 2.81 GAA. Varlamov's injury-plagued season ended with a 15-6-6 record with two shutouts, .909 SV%, and a 2.55 GAA. Theodore had the hotter hand by season's end, with a number of great games that boosted his stats above where they had been for the majority of the season. Then we entered the playoffs. Theodore was again the starter. He again faced a lesser team. He again lost Game 1. The score was 6-5 when the Canadiens won in OT. Boudreau again started him in Game 2, and again pulled him when he allowed two goals on the first two shots of the game. Varlamov was again put in net. Unfortunately, the goals had all been scored in Game 1, and the Caps lost in seven in quite possibly the greatest upset in NHL history. Varly posted consistent stats in the post-season, with a 3-3-0 record (he won Game 2), .908 SV% and 2.41 GAA.

It was at this point that fans (with me leading the charge in Pittsburgh) calling for Boudreau's head. For starting Theodore. For putting the lines in a blender and pouring out random assortments by the end of the series. For losing yet another 7-game series at home. For taking the most dominant team in the league and decimating their chemistry and putting on an amateur-hour showing in the playoffs. For throwing away the last game of the season, a game that affected the playoff standings and put the Caps up against the only team in the league to give them regular-season headaches. But Boudreau had posted a franchise-record setting season with 121 points, the Caps first-ever President's trophy, and a slew of other impressive stats. Leonsis and McPhee, logically, could not be brought to parting ways with BB.

"How many goals will a line with Chimera,
Gordon, and a fan wearing a Bondra jersey score ?"
We enter this season. The Caps parted ways with Theodore, who in time signed with the Wild, made questionable decisions in not seeking a second line center or top-4 defenseman, and decided to go with the young goaltending tandem of Varlamov and Neuvirth. Varlamov, who had shown what he can do in the NHL, and Neuvirth, who had lackluster NHL showings but had two Calder Cups and an AHL playoffs MVP under his belt. Varlamov had the same season as last year, set aside by injuries. Neuvirth took over Theodore's role as the beneficiary of the offense's better performances while putting up the worst SV% and GAA of the three goalies who played during the regular season. Varlamov, while posting stats placing him in the top 10 of the league's starters, finished with a losing record (since the dominant word in "overtime loss" for me is "loss"). Boudreau likes it when his goalies win, and doesn't care how they get there. He also was desperate to find a reason why the Caps lost to the Canadiens. He decided that the line shuffling was not a detriment to team chemistry, but was in fact the best way to make sure everyone was comfortable with anyone. I was reminded of a line from The Incredibles (I paraphrase here): "Everyone is special." "That's just another way of saying nobody is." While Boudreau was spinning the roulette wheel of line arrangements, players fell by the wayside, individual stats dropped, and offense dropped. BB did find great success with the penalty kill, however. By constantly shifting PK time and lines, the team was no longer dependent on last year's "top" killers of Dave Steckel and Tom Poti. Last year's squad had one of the league's worst PKs. Those two players logged the most ice time for a forward and defenseman, respectively, on the PK, and they both had above-average powerplay goals against while on ice. Shockingly to those who are not me, when their roles were lessened (or in Poti's case, removed by uinjury), the PK effectiveness became one of the league's best, consistently, for the entire season. However, the Capitals as a group suffered from Boudreau's Great Search for The Answer to The Playoffs. While the team finished tops in the Eastern Conference, this is largely because of the goaltending. I may complain about starting Neuvirth, but he has had a spectacular season - it just has not been as spectacular as Varlamov's or Braden Holtby's. I see no reason to take the worst goalie into the playoffs because he happened to play the most games. We tried this the last two seasons and went home losers.
"I'd prefer it if I didn't have to cry myself to sleep tonight because of you."

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