Washington Capitals' 2011 NHL Playoffs Loss Proves There's A Mental Hurdle To Overcome

TAMPA, FL - MAY 04: Steve Downie #9 of the Tampa Bay Lightning celebrates the game winning goal by Marc-Andre Bergeron #47 at 5:07 of the third period against the Washington Capitals in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the 2011 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the St Pete Times Forum on May 4, 2011 in Tampa, Florida. The Lightning defeated the Capitals 5-3 and swept the series 4 games to none. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Remember when Lightning coach Guy Boucher said it would be a "failure" if the Capitals couldn't win the series? The fact that he even thought to play mind games explains why the Capitals keep having playoff disappointment.

There's one thing I've been trying to figure out for days, as the Capitals' season slipped away in what ultimately ended as a four-game sweet at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning. It's been bugging me every time I turn on the TV and I see another bad defensive shift, another massive letdown in a key spot, another one-man rush by Alex Ovechkin that goes nowhere, another long shot that gets blocked. Now that the series is over, the question looms even larger than before.

Just what was Tampa Bay Lightning coach Guy Boucher doing when he said this before the series started?

"We're the little naggers biting at their ankles. So yes, it's Goliath against David. That's what it is. So better get our slingshots ready," the rookie head coach said.

[...]

"If they don't win, it's a failure," Boucher said.  

Now that we've seen the series play out the way it has, I think it's become more clear exactly what Boucher was doing. And I don't think it reflects very well on this bunch of Capitals at all.

Before we continue, I should be very clear: this is not a call to fire Bruce Boudreau. This also is not a call to not fire Bruce Boudreau. Before the playoffs began, I argued that Boudreau's job should be safe no matter what. But I also didn't expect the Capitals to get swept before the conference finals by a team that made a mockery of their supposed defensive system. So I'm still on the fence there.

But going back to Boucher's words. Let's assume for a second that there was something calculated to them, and not just him having a little fun. There are two possible reasons for what he said. Either he was trying to play mind games with his own team, or he was trying to play mind games with the Capitals.

I'm not really sure how those words would have had much of an effect on his own team. Tampa Bay doesn't need to be reminded of the Capitals' talent. They've been out of the playoffs for several years as the Capitals lorded over the Southeast Division. Sure, only four points separated the two teams in the regular season in 2010/11, but the little brother analogy works well enough for the Lightning players to be sufficiently motivated. I don't think this was Boucher trying to tell his team to be on guard. 

So that leaves us with the only alternative: Boucher was trying to play mind games with his opponent. Only Boucher knows exactly what he was trying to do, but it's pretty clear he was trying to do something. The fact that he thought a couple of silly lines like this would make a difference in this series speaks to a large problem with the Capitals' culture, one that goes beyond a player or a coach.

The question that must be answered is this: what is to be gained by calling your opponent a favorite? I can't help but go back to one of Boudreau's lines in the HBO 24/7 series, the one where he addressed his team in the middle of the long December losing streak after they fell behind 2-0 against the Florida Panthers. The moment is famous because of all the F-bombs, but it was this line that sticks:

"I have never seen a bunch of guys look so [expletive] down when something bad happens."    

By anointing the Capitals as the huge favorites in this series, Boucher was playing right into Boudreau's words. He was setting the Capitals up to fail, giving them false confidence that he hoped would spiral out of control once a seed of doubt was placed into their heads. That's what Boucher saw happen during the December losing streak, and that's what he wanted to exploit again. Sure enough, Tampa Bay won Game 1, and the Capitals progressively got worse in the series. It worked, tremendously.

That mentality is a huge problem with the Capitals, and there's no easy fix. First thing's first, George McPhee and Ted Leonsis must figure out how, exactly, the players respond when their confidence is shaken. Do they stop trying? Do they play passively because they're worried about making a mistake? Do they play so emotionally that they lose the proper analytical skills to do the right thing on the ice? Do they start to believe their press and simply refuse to do what's necessary to win? We know at this point that the team seems to feel sorry for themselves too much when bad things happen, but determining the specific on-ice application of that effect is a much bigger question.

But it's also an essential question, and it's the first thing management needs to do in the wake of another postseason disaster. There are no statistics that explain an athlete's psychology. There are no devices that transmit a player's thoughts into an easy-to-understand formula. Instead, all you have is a lot of guesswork.

The Capitals need to be precise with that guesswork if they ever want to fix these playoff woes. There's a clear mental problem, and Guy Boucher and the Lightning exploited it. That soul-searching process must be done before the Capitals even think about figuring out which parts of the roster are most responsible for it.

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