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HARRIS: Bruins, Blackhawks boast intangibles Caps lack

- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 6, 2013


On May 13, while the Capitals were in the process of losing 5-0 at home to the Rangers in Game 7 of a first-round playoff series, the Bruins were at home falling behind Toronto 4-1 in Game 7 of that series.

Caps players could call their buddies on the Bruins and make some tee times because surely those Bruins would be available.

It was 4-1 and barely more than 10 minutes remained. The Bruins were done. You can't kick field goals in hockey.

Except Boston managed three more regulation goals, including two in the final 1:22, then won the game (and series) in overtime.

The Bruins still aren't golfing. They've won seven of eight playoff games since, steamrolling the Rangers in five games and bursting out to a 3-0 series lead against the vaunted Penguins. They're one victory away from playing for another Stanley Cup, and they have four chances to get it.

They will.

The Blackhawks, meanwhile, found themselves down 3-1 in games to the Red Wings in the second round. They won the next three, including Game 7 in overtime and have since taken a 2-1 series lead on the Kings going into Thursday's fourth game of the Western Conference finals.

What they have is something that is clearly missing around these parts. The troubling thing is it can't be obtained in a draft, a trade, by waving a magic wand. Or maybe it can, if you manage to put together the right collection of players.

It is intangible. It doesn't score goals or stop them, not directly anyway.

There are other words for it, but let's just go with guts.

Championship teams seem to find a way when there really isn't one. Most teams that win a championship in any sport that requires them to navigate multiple games (like the NCAA tournament) or series (like the NBA or NHL playoffs) have to at least once pull victory out of an uncomfortable place. They have to win when they should have lost, not lose when they should have won.

They have to be 4-1 down late in a game and win. They have to be 3-1 down in a series and win.

Sound like a hockey team we know?

The Capitals didn't get off to a great start in life when they went 8-67-5 in 1974-75, their first season. But they got good pretty quickly and have been in the playoffs 24 times since 1983. In other words, way more often that not. Nothing wrong there.

They've played 37 series, including the one this year. They've won 13. They've only made it past the second round twice in all their playoff appearances.

Only twice have they fallen behind 3-1 and won a series. They've kicked away 3-1 leads four times, including twice to the Penguins. The last time they rallied from 3-1 down was in 2009, when they won three straight to beat the Rangers. But they didn't seize the new life like Boston has done this year.

After that rally against the Rangers came another series against the Penguins, where the Caps won the first two and lost four of the next five, including a thumping at home in Game 7.

Hmmm, that sounds familiar.

So what will it take for the Caps to get over this playoff malaise and be a team that plays into June with any kind of regularity? This isn't a new issue. It's spanned regimes of coaches, players, general managers.

Can something like this be fixed?

Experience clearly matters. Hockey's Final Four this year is the four most recent Cup winners — Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago and Pittsburgh.

The Caps have one player, Troy Brouwer, who has won a Cup. He was with Chicago in 2010.

But will trading for or signing players who have won Cups recently help? If it was that simple, all free agents on Cup-winning teams would feel like they'd been given their own Brinks truck.

"You always talk about wanting guys that have that experience, that playoff experience, and that's usually a hot commodity," Caps defenseman Karl Alzner told reporters on the team's breakdown day. "If that's what we had on the team, I think that would probably help."

There is no easy answer, obviously. Otherwise the Caps would have stumbled onto it by now. They've been real good for a real long time now. Fans in other cities have a lot more reasons to complain. Edmonton has the longest nonplayoff streak in the league at seven seasons. The Phoenix Coyotes/Winnipeg Jets went 23 seasons between victories in a playoff series.

So it could be a lot worse.

But being good-but-not-good-enough grows almost as frustrating after awhile. Particularly as you watch the teams still playing go about their business. They're not necessarily better than the Caps. They're clearly tougher.

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