The season is over. October, November, December, January, February, March, April. Almost into May, but not quite.
You can say what you want. That the refs sucked for calling that weak incidental contact goal-disallowal on Knuble. That Mike Green choked, playing the body instead of the puck at least twice (one resulted in a power play against, the other a goal against) and hitting the post twice instead of the net. That Alexander Semin needs to go. That Bruce Boudreau can't coach a playoff team. That the power play falls under pressure. That Jaroslav Halak did a once-in-a-lifetime set of games (1, 5,6,7).
But at the end of the day, the Canadiens did what it took to win. The Capitals didn't.
The Canadiens scored when it counted. The Capitals didn't (save Backstrom's OT winner in Game 2).
The Canadiens blocked shots. The Capitals didn't.
The Canadiens got great power play performance. The Capitals didn't.
The Canadiens got great penalty killing. The Capitals didn't.
The Canadiens made adjustments specifically for the Caps. The Capitals didn't specifically for the Habs.
I can go on. But fact of the matter is, goaltending is the most important position, and Halak was lights-out. Nevertheless, Washington could have won. Should have won. But for various reasons, did not. Montreal played a style to neutralize the Caps' wide-open attack, a passive forecheck that gave the Caps trouble all season long, not only on Montreal but also in New Jersey and Columbus over the past two seasons. Everyone in the hockey world was confident that the Capitals could and would adjust accordingly (since there's little point in the regular season to adjust for a game then adjust back for many more) but at the end of the day (this series) they did not. Enough, that is.
Game 1: Caps come out flat. Somehow, they hang in there. Capitalize on a fluky point shot and a weird bounce inside the MTL zone. Montreal deserves to win and does.
Game 2: Montreal strong through two periods. Halak begins going down too early. Capitals victimize him and win in OT, but don't deserve it.
Game 3: Caps come out flat. Varlamov spectacular. Caps roll in the second and third periods, win easily.
Game 4: Caps come out strong, Halak holds the Habs in there. Varlamov stellar in the second as the Habs turn it on. Caps roar back in the third, win easily.
Game 5: Caps are flat the entire game. Jacques Martin makes adjustments, specifically Gill and Gorges against Ovechkin, instead of Spacek. Montreal deserves the win.
Game 6: Caps play strong, but Halak is terrific.
Game 7: See Game 6.
Montreal clearly wins on the defensive front, where team defense--and coaching, to get everyone on the same page--is key. Montreal clogged the neutral zone and scored via the power play and counter-attacks. They got in the shooting lanes (blocking more shots than getting shots on goal themselves over the last two games). They tied up sticks near the net and kept guys like Knuble out of Halak's sightline. They came out strong every game, critical especially in Games 1, 5, and 6 (2 also if not for the great third period by the Caps' top line). And so on.
Not to pin this on Boudreau, since players like Green, Semin, Fleischmann, and probably Schultz as well no doubt underperformed. But he has to go and do some thinking about his game philosophy this summer (read this great piece for some elaboration on that idea).
What do I think? This isn't on the defense. It isn't on the goaltending. It's on the forwards who couldn't do what it takes to win. They needed to score goals like Backstrom's first and second in Game 2. They needed to set up plays like Green-to-Fehr for a goal in Game 6. They needed more efforts like Brooks Laich's to score the Caps' goal in Game 7.
When everyone is back changes will have been made. The Capitals have several unrestricted free agents, including Joe Corvo, Scott Walker, Eric Belanger, Brendan Morrison, and Jose Theodore. Nicklas Backstrom as of now will be a restricted free agent. General Manager George McPhee will no doubt draft some players on draft day (some of whom may make an immediate impact) and make some signings during the free agency period. And at the end of it all, we start another season, with the same goal in mind.
Maintain the faith. Other teams' fans have had it worse [coughsanjosecough]. The Caps still have Alex Ovechkin. They will have Nicklas Backstrom. They have Mike Green. Jeff Schultz. Karl Alzner. John Carlson. Mathier Perreault. Eric Fehr (hopefully). Semyon Varlamov. Michal Neuvirth. Braden Holtby. Cody Eakin. Marcus Johansson. Stefan Della Rovere. And so on.
Let's hope it turns out better next time. Training camp starts around September.
Let's go Caps.
But for right now? There are three rounds to go until the Stanley Cup champion is decided. Lots of hockey left, even if I tune out until after AP exams.
Congratulations to Montreal and its fans for a great first round series, and good luck against Pittsburgh. You'll need more of the same to beat the Penguins.
Conference semifinal matchups:
4 Pittsburgh vs 8 Montreal
6 Boston vs 7 Philadelphia
1 San Jose vs 5 Detroit
2 Chicago vs 3 Vancouver
(Funny how one of each seed advanced, and one of each lost)