The Washington Capitals were bounced yet again prematurely. Yet another playoff beard gone too soon. As if the legacy of the 90s wasn’t enough to bear, the threat of another Patrick Division rivalry gone wrong in the new millennial version of the NHL isn’t exactly gratifying.
Then again, it was an interesting season. One that finds the core four “young guns” coming to a cross-roads with Semin a UFA and Green a RFA as Green and Backestrom recover from long-term injuries. One that found a coaching change. One that found a third-string goalie starting in the playoffs. One that found the breath of GMGMs decisions both good and bad playing into the outcome.
A childhood dream of seeing the Big Game Hunter return to the Caps was, well, interesting. There was a lot of warranted speculation Dale’s ownership of his team and relationship with his family would probably play a part in his future. As it turned out, the time away from both were more than enough reason to walk away from the Caps after his year contract expired. He did amazing things to help develop the right attitude with the current Caps roster, just as he was a driving force for the Caps leading up to their 1998 “Glory days” but it turns out simpler, not grander ideals are what drives Dale. Not surprising, Dale is driven, but by himself, and nothing else. He was the same way as a player, not selfish, but self-made and self-driven.
That all being said, Dale was almost an accidental genius. He did what BB couldn’t which was instill defensive responsibility to the team and direct them in the right direction. He did it in his own way with a team that had nothing to do with his philosophy or ideal. He did it without knowing or understanding any of the players that ever laced up for him. He did it without documenting anything other than his knowledge as a player and the distinction of the team he owns. He didn’t care about who the players were, or thought they were, or what they’d done before. He won, and lost, based on his own interpretation of how a player should play. For better or worse, it worked, and it didn’t.
Was it better than BB? Well, the Caps dug in deep to go two rounds. BB brought them just as far with less total team minutes on the ice. Under Hunter the Caps battled, like the had in the 90s, against the nemesis Pens and Isles, went to extra frames, went to 7-game series, went to brutal battles. But it served them no better. Not because the team isn’t as worthy as 98 (they probably worked harder) or as skilled (they are younger, more balanced and naturally skilled) but because they don’t have that collusion to glue them together. This isn’t a team that can’t, or not even necessarily a team that won’t… it is a team that hasn’t. Cup lore is littered with team that haven’t. Ask Vancouver. Ask St. Louis. The Caps are a problematic franchise, but, well…
The biggest question going into the season was the Varly-to-Volks move. As it turned out, neither play a role in the remaining question from last season, which is who is the #1 goalie?
The Caps have an interesting goalie history. Several of the franchise cornerstones are considered hotspots between the pipes yet none have ever achieved the Sawchuck, Roy, Broudeur level, though Kolzig still puts most modern goalies to the wall… so, when the young phenom Varly went down the protegee Nuevs came in. When Nuevs went down Holts came in. When varly was traded Nueves and Holts were still in place as the team opted to bring in top-5 rated vet Volks who didn’t ice a single late season game as the kids carried the season (yet again, which is how Kolz got his start too). The season ended with Holts holding down the fort. Is this another Jim Carey-Kolzig scenario?