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Big questions need to be asked in Capitals' bitter lesson

The three top teams in Eastern Conference are gone after one round, and while the Devils and Sabres will be open to some criticism, the Capitals are living a nightmare.

The Caps finished first overall in the Eastern Conference and lost to the No. 8 seed -- a team they outscored by more than 100 goals during the regular season -- in what many will call the upset of the still-young century. They fell, somewhat foolishly given their arrogance and unwillingness to commit to the kind of hockey one needs to win in the playoffs, as they were outdone by the stunning goaltending of the unheralded Jaroslav Halak.

So what can we make of all this?

Well, three things really: finishing first, second or third in conference play is no guarantee of playoff success, but it's obvious that attitude matters.

Goaltending matters.

Coaching makes a difference as well.

In various ways, the Capitals, Devils and Sabres were affected by one or more of the above, but with Washington, it was all three.

Let's start with attitude. The Capitals approached the Canadiens as if winning would just be a matter of showing up and blowing the puck past a relatively inexperienced goaltender or two. Huge mistake. Even in games the Capitals won -- okay, in two out of the three, at least -- they appeared to be less than committed to any kind of defensive effort and true physical play. We're not talking about fighting, we mean tenacity in pursuit of the puck, the physical force necessary to win the battles in the corners and along the boards, and bearing down to win or at least control play during and immediately after face-offs. Controlling the action via special teams play wasn't their strong point, either.

The effort wasn't there, not even when panic set in prior to Game 7. Everybody gets a share of the blame for that, but the major portion falls on coach Bruce Boudreau, who should know better, and on captain Alex Ovechkin, who showed himself to be ridiculous in his public needling of Halak, especially when he pointed out that Montreal goalie's hands appeared to be shaking when he sipped water during Game 2. Surely it was an attempt to intimidate, a long-standing tradition in the NHL, especially in the playoffs, but Ovechkin grossly underestimated Halak's mental toughness and desire to move past teammate Carey Price and make his mark as the No.1 goalie with a franchise that has a storied tradition of excellence at the position. Ovechkin embarrassed himself more than his opponent.

Smart captains might get a goalie thinking about a perceived weakness by saying that they're going to shoot high or to the stick side -- perhaps provoking an overreaction or change in a goalie's style or comfort zone -- but to challenge Halak's ability to compete at this level, well, it was a needless, senseless comment that said more about Ovechkin's lack of leadership skills than anyone had previously imagined.

Compounding the error was Ovechkin's overall poor performance as a scorer. He did net five goals in the series and he gets some credit here for coming back from being held without a shot on goal in Game 1, but he never did get his offensive game untracked. That's a tribute to Halak and a Canadiens defense that rose to support him (to a degree, given the high numbers of shots the goalie faced) as well as its overall disruption of Washington's offense (see: the obvious failures of Alexander Semin and Mike Green for the second playoff season in a row).

It's no longer too soon to question whether Ovechkin is the right player to be wearing the "C" as this is still a young team. The time should be now and the need is for someone to lead with both words and performance, and not just point fingers and ridicule opponents. Getting Ovechkin some experienced help would be a good place to start.

The same can be said for Boudreau.

It's both understandable and acceptable to nurture talent, and sometimes even to bow to it. All coaches do it and most do it out of necessity, but along the way the really good ones teach talented players how to win in every situation they might encounter. Maybe Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux were never going to contend for a Selke Trophy, but they knew the value of not getting scored upon in a tight game and series, and that they should at least try to be effective in all areas of the ice.

That hasn't happened yet in Washington. It's unfair to say that Boudreau doesn't know that or know how to do it. His record as a coach in the AHL supports his bonafide credentials. But in the minors, players, even really good players who are destined for the NHL, are willing to absorb everything necessary to get to the big time. It's different with superstars who never see the low end of the game. The coddling of Ovechkin and others on the Capitals roster in recent years has reached the point of low or no return.

Sidney Crosby learned the lesson of a lifetime when his Penguins lost to Pavel Datsuyk, Henrik Zetterberg and the Red Wings in the 2008 Stanley Cup Final. When the two teams met again a year later, Crosby and his teammates were far more responsible when they didn't have the puck. Crosby led and the entire team followed. It's why the Penguins beat the Capitals when it mattered most last spring, in a deciding game on Washington ice. It's why they beat the Red Wings at what the Wings do best, on Detroit ice, in the 2009 final. It's why they slapped down Ottawa in the first round this year even though the Senators came up with a performance almost on par with the Canadiens.

It's not a given that Boudreau can accomplish what the Capitals need most. One can make the case that this is the kind of bitter defeat that a team learns from, but that was supposed to be the case last spring, and clearly the Caps haven't improved. There is reason to question if their coach can assert authority and that this collection of players will accept.

Will they learn? Is Boudreau even the right coach to teach them? Will Ovechkin rise to the next level or content himself with being the best player in the game as long as THE GAME (and, yes, the Olympics fall into that category) isn't one that truly matters?

It's questionable.

"I would have bet my house that they wouldn't beat us three games in a row," Boudreau said after the Canadiens became the first team ever to come back from a 3-1 series deficit in the first round. "I thought we had a chance to win the Stanley Cup."

But that's the problem.

So did the Canadiens, and with 26 Stanley Cup banners hanging from their rafters, they have the history and enough of a lineup to know how it got done. The Caps don't.

The Canadiens also had the players -- especially in goal -- who didn't take the challenge lightly.

It remains to be seen if the Capitals, as a franchise, can learn from that.

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