Friday, May 06, 2011

Stanley Cup Playoffs: Thoughts on Bruce Boudreau and Short Second-Round Series

As we get closer to the NHL conference finals, here are a few thoughts on the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Bruce Boudreau should be in danger, but that doesn't mean he definitely will be fired. As I wrote Thursday, Boudreau looked overmatched in this series, and it's not like Tampa Bay is this uber-talented team that simply cannot be beaten. He just didn't have any answers, despite having superior talent on the ice.

I heard chatter in December that Boudreau was in danger, right around the time of his famous expletive-laden rant that aired on 24/7. The talk was that former Capital Dale Hunter -- now with the London Knights of the OHL -- would eventually become the head coach. Boudreau's team found a way to evade the possible change by getting hot and riding their Winter Classic win to a second-half surge in the East.

But when it came playoff time, many of the same issues cropped up for the Capitals, who were susceptible to opponents willing to out-work the Caps on both ends of the ice. They had one in the first round with the Rangers, but New York wasn't good enough to make the Capitals pay for their lapses.

The Lightning were.

James O'Brien of Pro Hockey Talk does -- in my estimation -- a good job of laying out the case for keeping Boudreau another year. This isn't like the epic Pensblog rant, where the authors are simply hoping to keep Boudreau around for comedic reasons.

While I think James lays out a good case, I'm not swayed enough to change my mind. I still think the Capitals would be wise to consider a coaching change, and perhaps go with a more veteran guy. This is, in part, because I think Boudreau's general inexperience in the NHL has hurt him and the team. Some guys just aren't cut out for anything bigger than the AHL, just like some guys just aren't cut out to coach in the pros, but they can be elite at the college or junior level.

The Capitals are still young, with a ton of rookies seeing big minutes this season. If they don't plan on getting older -- and there aren't a lot of UFAs they can bring in who have the right mix of ability and experience -- it would be shrewd to bring in a winning coach who has the experience to bring the young players along and progress in the postseason tournament.

Boudreau's teams are 2-4 in playoff series, despite having home-ice advantage in all six series. They were swept once, and they've lost an incomprehensible three Game 7s at home. They rallied from 3-1 down to win one series, and won the other in five (both against the Rangers).

Unless a significant change is coming to the team's makeup, I don't see any way they can continue with Boudreau. Yes, they're young and inexperienced. But Boudreau has already proven he can't lead a young and inexperienced team in the playoffs. No need to make him do that again. Either give him an older group, or let someone else take the reins. Either that, or you run the serious and real risk of blowing yet another year of Alex Ovechkin's prime. The way he plays the game, you can't be guaranteed he'll play at a high level deep into his 30s.

After all, if we've learned anything in sports, it's that the supposed window of opportunity for championships is never as wide-open as you may think it is.

Why the rush? After four Game 7s in the first round -- and two other series went six games -- the second round could be complete as soon as Saturday, when Nashville tries to stay alive at Vancouver.

How does this happen?

There are a couple theories I think are effective here. For starters, the long first-round series may not have shown much separation in talent, but what they did was set us up for that separation to show up in the second round. Philadelphia was limping into the playoffs, not playing well, and they were banged up with poor goaltending. Buffalo wasn't good enough to take full advantage of that, but Boston -- who shook off an awful start to their first-round series -- certainly was and is. The Flyers are likely out of gas after such a tough opening series, and they just don't have much left when you consider everything they've been fighting through all season long, but especially the last month to six weeks.

While Nashville showed they were better than Anaheim, they appear to have hit a wall, in large part because they're just not a wonderfully deep team. Vancouver, meanwhile, beat down a hated rival, one that they had little confidence playing against. The relief that they clearly felt after the Game 7 overtime win has allowed them to settle back into their game during the second round. That first-round series might have been grueling, but the Canucks got immeasurable amounts of momentum and confidence out of finally being able to win it.

The other theory that could work is that it's not like we're seeing a lot of separation in talent or level of play, outside of the Boston-Philly series. Every game but one in the Nashville-Vancouver series has been decided by a goal, and the one that wasn't was sealed with a late empty-netter. All three San Jose-Detroit games have been one-goal games, with two going overtime. Tampa Bay won twice by a goal and got an empty-netter to seal Game 1. Only Game 4 was a "comfortable" win for the Lightning. It's not that the games are non-competitive, but the better teams are finding ways to win them, and therefore the series have been non-competitive.

Either way, the playoffs are still the best theater in sports, and we're likely not done with overtimes, Game 7s, or general drama.

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