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Washington Capitals: Mentally Stuck in Neutral

Capitals Still Fall Short in Big Moments

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COMMENTARY | Stop me if you've heard this one before. The Washington Capitals choked in a big game against an archrival on national television. Sound familiar? It should, this has been a pattern they have been playing out for several years now. Coaches and players have come and gone, so what's the problem? Even after six consecutive playoff seasons, there is a mental hurdle that this team just cannot seem to get past.

It is always easy to blame a player or teams struggles on something mental because it is not something you can actually prove or disprove, but there has got to be a reason why this team always falls spectacularly short in the biggest moments.

The Capitals did not just lose to the Penguins, they looked pathetic. They gave up 40 shots while only mustering 18 of their own. The vaunted special teams? They forced only three penalties, all of which came in the first period, and failed to score on any of them. They also gave up a power play goal to Sidney Crosby.

In an 82 game season, teams are bound to have bad games. Is this just a case of bad timing? Perhaps, but the Capitals went into Wednesday's game having won three-straight and seven of their last nine. They have lost both of their games since. This was a hot team going into their matchup with Pittsburgh and an ice-cold team afterwards. They choked in the spotlight and are still trying to get their confidence back.

This game reflects a much larger problem for the Capitals; losing important regular season games can happen, but the fact that this is extending into the playoffs is the biggest issue facing this team as they perennially underachieve in the postseason.

In 2008, the Capitals won the Southeast Division on the final game of the regular season and qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 2003. The fell behind the Philadelphia Flyers three games to one before losing in overtime in Game 7. The Capitals fell again three games to one to start out their series with the New York Rangers in 2009, but fought their way back to a win Game 7. They played an even series with Pittsburgh in the second round before the Penguins embarrassed them 6-2 in a non-competitive Game 7 at the Verizon Center. Pittsburgh went on to win the Stanely Cup that year.

The Capitals won the President's Trophy in 2010 in one of the most dominant season in recent memory, yet fell to Montreal in seven games in the very first round even after taking a three games to one series lead. After dispatching the New York Rangers in five games in 2011, they were dismissed by Tampa Bay in a humiliating four game sweep.

Under Dale Hunter in 2012, the Capitals shocked the defending champion Boston Bruins in round one and were sent home by New York in seven games in the second round. The two teams met against last season and again, the Capitals were sent home after a 5-0 collapse in Game 7 at home.

Since drafting Ovechkin, they have not made it past the second round and they are running out of on-ice reasons for their struggles.

The Capitals have cycled through goalies, defensemen, and forwards trying to find the right combination. They even tried to bring in veteran Cup-winning leadership in Mike Knuble and Troy Brouwer. None of it has worked.

If you accept that their mentality is the issue, the question becomes how do you fix it? One troubling possibility would be the nuclear option. If the only thing that has been consistent during the Capitals' playoff failures is the core, then is it time to start over?

Not quite yet. Despite the team's struggles, the core players have played fairly well in the postseason. Ovechkin has 61 points in 58 playoff games, Backstrom has 43 points in 57 games, and Mike Green has 33 points in 51 games including six power play goals and two game winners.

Compare those totals to Alexander Semin, a player who was often criticized for his lack of production in the playoffs despite superstar-level talent. Semin has 34 points in 51 playoff games, all when he was with the Capitals. Those numbers do not come close to either Ovechkin's or Backstrom's and are really only comparable to those of Green…who plays defense. The core is not the problem; they're producing at a good rate.

The solution lies in coaching. Consider this, the only time the Capitals have overachieved in the playoffs in the Ovechkin era is under Hunter in 2012. They were not supposed to beat the Bruins or the Rangers, yet they managed to send the defending champions home and force seven games against New York as a seventh seed.

That's not to say Hunter was a great coach, he most certainly was not. He failed to utilize his team's best assets effectively (like Ovechkin) and thus held the team back. He also was a terrible communicator who would routinely bench players and never tell them why.

Yet, he managed to get something out of this team in the postseason that neither Bruce Boudreau nor Adam Oates have thus far. Ovechkin even produced at a better rate in those playoffs than he did last year under Oates despite never seeing the ice.

Hunter was a disciplinarian who instilled discipline and accountability in the team. If you did not play well, you were benched. Oates has proved himself to be a very good coach thus far, but I doubt Hunter would have started the season with an injured John Erskine as his number four defenseman.

Everyone loves to bash Hunter and, in the long run, I have no doubt that Oates will prove to be the better coach. That does not mean, however, that he did everything wrong.

The Capitals are clearly lacking in mental toughness and if Oates wants to correct that, he could stand to take a few pages out of Hunter's book.

JJ Regan is a digital freelancer for Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic and is earning his master's in journalism at American University. Follow him on Twitter @TheDC_Sportsguy
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