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The Globe and Mail

Tampa's championship pedigree trumps Capitals' talent

Bruce Bennett/2011 Getty Images

MONTREAL -- Well that had to be pretty suckalicious for Caps fans.

As someone who covered the Montreal-Washington series last year, I hate to say told you this would happen, but...

Theories will abound as to why the Capitals still haven't managed to reach the halfway point to winning the Stanley Cup - eight playoff wins - during the Bruce Boudreau era, which may soon come to a brutish end.

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Best one we've heard comes from our great and good friend Pat Hickey of the Montreal Gazette, who jokingly posited earlier this season that Alex Ovechkin's mega-bucks endorsement deal with a certain razor manufacturer has required him to alter his routine in small, but perhaps meaningful ways (it reportedly requires him to be mostly clean-shaven, which may explain the neatly-trimmed goatee in lieu of the shaggy, unkempt playoff whiskers of years past).

Call it the curse of the close shave.

There is of course, a larger point here - small things matter in tightly-fought contests. Which prompts a question: why is it that some supremely talented players just can't figure out how to win while others with equivalent or lesser skills can?

Junk science has lots to say about the subject, just Google "psychology of winning" and you'll find lots of people willing to offer their prescription for three easy payments of $19.99.

Proper science does too.

In the middle of the last decade, psychologists at the University of Pennsylvania undertook a study of success and 'giftedness' and determined that grit (defined as persistence and commitment) are typically more important indicators than talent or intelligence.

That's not a surprise to anyone who watches a lot of hockey.

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But psychologists have also broken down the constituent elements of what they term grit, which include ambition, drive, self-discipline and, yes, optimism. They also point out that industry doesn't equate with grit. That might explain why it seemed that while Ovechkin and his teammates visibly worked harder as the series went on, they couldn't quite gain the upper hand.

A bewildered and frustrated-looking Ovechkin said after the game that "we're hungry, we want to win" but that Tampa was hungry too. He should have said "hungrier," because it was apparent to anyone who saw the series. And that should bother Ovechkin, because it's a statement on his leadership.

It's not to say the Caps failed miserably - the games were all close, other than Wednesday's, and even then they had chances to take the lead. In the end, though they couldn't summon the resources.

The lesson is that in close contests, the more driven players generally come out on top, all other things being equal.

Everyone has to learn how to win - failure should eventually breed success, and past successes typically show the way to future ones. And that's another area the Lightning (and the Canadiens, for that matter) had the Caps beat.

Consider the championship pedigree of Washington's young core players.

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Ovechkin has won stuff before, most recently the 2008 World Championship with Russia. But if you look at his track record more closely, he's rarely managed to guide teams to victory as The Man (anyone remember the 2010 Olympics?). When Russia won the World Juniors in 2003, the Great 8 was the fifth-leading scorer on the team (Ovechkin went to the tournament three times and was its dominant player, but only won once). When he won the Russian Super League during the NHL lockout, Ovechkin was an 18-year-old on a Dynamo Moscow club led by Pavel Datsyuk, who had already won a Stanley Cup by then (Ovechkin was the sixth-leading scorer on that team).

Until the 2008 Worlds, Ovechkin's pal Alex Semin (one point in the last three games against Tampa) had never played on a championship squad at any level, and the Worlds are a dubious benchmark, as it's rarely the same calibre as a best-against-best event like the Olympics or even World Juniors. That might explain how Semin once again validated this space's position that he turns into a gagging canine when the bright lights come on.

Mike Green, who was pointedly left off Canada's 2010 Olympic squad, won a Calder Cup in the AHL with Boudreau in his rookie pro season, but other than that his only other major triumph was with Canada's under-18 squad in 2003 (and Phoenix Coyotes enforcer Paul Bissonette also played defence on the team that year - so did eventual Cup and Olympic champion Brent Seabrook).

Nicklas Backstrom (one assist in four games versus Tampa) played a bit part on Sweden's 2006 World Championship team, and had some modest junior success with Brynas IF Gavle in Sweden, and at the World Junior Championships (although he never won a gold). But he hasn't got a track record of leading from the front.

Brooks Laich, who spent fair bits of time on the top line against Tampa (one goal, two assists) and is known as a heart-and-soul guy, was Green's teammate in Hershey in 2006, but didn't win anything of note in junior and played on the losing side in a WJC gold medal game.

Michal Neuvirth won an OHL championship in Plymouth and a pair of Calder Cups, but hasn't shone on the international stage and didn't play in the Stanley Cup playoffs last year - and as Carey Price can attest, winning in the AHL isn't quite the same thing as winning in the NHL.

John Carlson and Karl Alzner led their respective country's World Junior squads to gold (the former wore an 'A' for the U.S. in 2010 and the latter wore the 'C' for Canada in 2008) and Alzner won in the minors as well - but this is their first season as a front-line shut-down defensive pair in the NHL.

Contrast that with Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, who have won all there is to win in hockey, and lead from the front - St. Louis, in particular, is perhaps the most driven player in the game (who isn't named Sidney Crosby). Then add in guys like Steven Stamkos, who as TSN's Pierre McGuire likes to point out has won a championship in every sport he's ever played, and Dwayne Roloson, who led Edmonton to the 2006 Stanley Cup final. There are others too, just look at the defence: Marc-Andre Bergeron was a member of the 2005-06 Oilers and last year's Habs team, Mathias Ohlund won Olympic gold in 2006, Eric Brewer won gold in Salt Lake City in 2002, Pavel Kubina, who got hurt in the first game of the series, won the Cup with Lecavalier and St. Louis in 2004.

Leaders like Lecavalier and St. Louis understand that you can't make other people want something as badly as you do - ask anyone who's ever coached or played: you can't want people to win or be committed, they have to want it themselves.

But passion and leadership by example - coupled with an expert motivator and proven winner as a coach - are powerful tools to having others buy in.

If the Caps had the benefit more Knubles and Arnotts, they may have succeeded in holding their nerve better on the knife edge between success and failure.

Alex Ovechkin is surely too big a talent not to figure it out eventually, but he'll turn 26 before the start of next season - an age by which most great pro athletes have already won their first championship. We'll bet Stamkos has a Cup ring by then.

It's now up to George McPhee and Boudreau (or their successors) to find the pieces to breed the relentlessness and drive to get Ovechkin and his super-talented teammates over the hump.

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