Under Pressure

Wednesday’s game with the Boston Bruins will be another in a long line of game sevens for the Washington Capitals in their history.  Some have ended well.  Others, more recently, have not.

The numbers against the Caps are daunting heading in to the game, and everyone knows it.  Boston won three game sevens last spring, including the final game of the Final, en route to their first Stanley Cup championship since 1972.  They became the first team since the lockout to go seven games in the first round and win the Cup.  They “own” game seven, if you will.

Washington is 1-3 in game sevens in the Alex Ovechkin era, with the lone victory coming in the first round of the 2009 playoffs against the Rangers on home ice.  All three game seven losses came against a lower seed.  And the Capitals have never won a game seven in franchise history when leading a series 3-2 and falling in game six.

But for this incarceration of the Capitals, there are many that feel that this game seven, and this year, could be different.  And for good reason.  Washington matches up very well against this Bruins team, and they have played them very tight.  So tight, in fact, that according to the Elias Sports Bureau, this is the first playoff series in NHL history in which the first six games have been decided by one goal.

Dale Hunter, despite his unorthodox personnel decisions and controversial bench management, has finally gotten his roster to go for what he’s selling.

“Bruce was here 20 games and Dale’s been here 60,” said veteran winger Mike Knuble to ESPN’s Scott Burnside earlier this week.  “It’s taken every bit of that 60 games to get everybody to buy in.”

The result has been a team that some expected to miss the playoffs carrying the defending Stanley Cup champions to a seventh and decisive game.  Even when Washington made the playoffs, the conventional wisdom was that the big, deep, talented Bruins would wipe the floor with the Capitals and their rookie goaltender, Braden Holtby.  But that hasn’t been the case.

There are, absolutely, reasons to believe.

However, it’s not because the Capitals are the underdog.

It seems as though some people are laboring under an idea that because the Caps had such a decidedly poor season in the NHL’s weakest division, the Southeast, that this year is different.  That it was the pressure of being such a high seed that had caused the Capitals to fall out of the postseason well short of their goals in 2009, 2010, and 2011.  That there is no pressure this time around, because the Capitals are a seven seed and are not “expected” to contend for a Stanley Cup.

And I don’t understand it.  How is there no pressure on this team, exactly?

Read on.

They have the NHL’s second highest payroll.  They are in the sixth year of their rebuilding plan, which began in earnest with the debut of Alex Ovechkin in the fall of 2005.  They are in the fifth and final year of owner Ted Leonsis’ self-created and titled “five year plan.”

After this year, should the Capitals not win the Cup, the owner and the rest of the Washington brass will sit in their air-conditioned offices that are perched atop Kettler Capitals Iceplex.  And, according to Leonsis, they’ll mull over the following words – the first part of Leonsis’ “five year plan,” which goes as such:

“Ask yourself the big question: ‘Can this team – as constructed – ever win a championship?’ If the answer is yes – stay the course and try to find the right formula – if the answer is no, then plan to rebuild. Don’t fake it – really do the analytics and be brutally honest. Once you have your answer, develop the game plan to try to REALLY win a championship. Always run away from experts that say, ‘We’re just one player away.’”

No pressure?  Says who?

Anyone who looks at this Capitals team and doesn’t see pressure is kidding themselves.  Anyone who looks at this game and doesn’t see pressure is kidding themselves.  Anyone who looked at this postseason when it started and didn’t see pressure was kidding themselves.

Bruce Boudreau, a brilliant coach who revitalized the Washington franchise with an energetic, exciting, offensive brand of hockey, caved to the pressure.  Although George McPhee and Leonsis stuck with him after two shocking playoff exits – in 2010 and 2011, respectively – Boudreau was fired in late November, almost four years to the day after he took the job.  Boudreau was fired because of the pressure to win.

“We weren’t winning,” said a dreary-eyed McPhee on that cold November morning.  The Caps were 12-9-1 at that point.  They are 33-26-7 since, including the playoffs.

Virtually the exact same roster that Boudreau left behind is still intact, with the notable exception being in goal.  But as Holtby has demonstrated with his .935 save percentage in these playoffs, that has materialized into not that big of a void.  And it would certainly not be a big enough void to help excuse another early postseason exit.

The simple reality of the matter is that for this particular core group of Washington Capitals, the window is closing.  The Caps have wasted Alex Ovechkin’s best years; his point totals have dropped in each of the last four seasons, including an alarming 20-point drop off this year.  Whether you want to argue that Ovechkin will score 50 goals again is another issue entirely, but I think it is safe to say the 50-goal, 100-point Ovechkin is gone.  At least, consistently.

Two of the “Young Guns,” as they were once branded – Alexander Semin and Mike Green – could be gone after this season.  Even if Green returns, which I expect him to, he has not been the same since midseason surgery to fix a sports hernia.

If success is not achieved, would it make sense to continue to invest in players that have not gotten the job done?  I’m not calling for anyone’s head, but insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

McPhee, who has taken a heavy dose of blame this season for the contracts he handed to Joel Ward and Roman Hamrlik, may be on the hot seat as well.  Because as much as McPhee’s moves have resulted in regular season success, they have yet to translate into what really matters: postseason success.  That puts pressure on him.

The fan base is growing impatient.  More and more people are getting cynical about the team’s prospects for both the present and future.  Although the Verizon Center technically sold out every game held within it this year, many a game I saw from the press box opened to an arena that was half full.  And it rarely became completely full.  When the Caps’ season ticket renewal prices came out in late winter, many fans were upset, and some didn’t renew.

“How can they expect us to renew with what’s gone on this year?” said one season-ticket holder I spoke to in March.  “The product quality is going down, and they want us to pay more.  I don’t get it.”

No, that is not a shot at Caps fans, because I’m a Caps fan.  Always have been, always will be.  I am not calling people fair-weather.  It’s just an observation.

The bottom line here is that time is running out.  Postseason failure is more manageable when you win in the regular season and field a highly entertaining product.  But this past season, that wasn’t the case.

Just because the Caps didn’t have a banner regular season this year, like they have in recent years, the pressure doesn’t go away in the playoffs.  The core group is still there.  The management is still there.  The coach has changed, but that doesn’t buy you a free pass.  Results are needed, and the goal stays the same; it’s not 2008 anymore where the goal was simply to get in to the playoffs.  It’s the nature of any business, particularly that of a professional hockey team in a market that has been dominated by football for the last fifty-plus years.

This game seven is just like the last two game sevens the Caps have played, as is this playoff series.   There is no house money.  There is no “we’ll get them next year.”

There is pressure, make no mistake.  There’s pressure to win.

At least, there should be.

Harry Hawkings is a college student who is credentialed to cover the Caps for RtR.  Follow him on Twitter here.