NHL playoffs: Capitals quiet raucous Madison Square Garden

Thomas Boswell
Columnist April 20, 2011

The four-hour conflagration between the Capitals and Rangers in Game 4 of their first-round playoff series will be remembered for its thrills, for an early 3-0 New York lead and a three-goal Washington rally in the third period to force overtime. And, of course, it will stay vivid for its final image of a 4-3 win by the Caps that left them in command, three games to one, with the series headed back to Washington for Game 5 on Saturday.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

In this game’s final split-second, with 7 minutes 24 seconds left in the second overtime, the Capitals’ Jason Chimera found himself behind the entire New York defense, in sole possession of a deflected puck off a Rangers stick, with nothing to do except flip the puck into an empty net for victory.

“That was a fabulous hockey game — two warrior teams,” Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau said. “You’re almost sorry it ended on a broken play.”

Almost, but not really. This victory totally shifts this series toward the Caps and neuters at least some of the toxicity of their dismal misadventures last April. Is it an omen of a much different future? The Caps are entitled to build upon that theory.

But this was more than just a momentum-shifting game. It was a microcosm of one of the most exciting recurrent scenes in sports — a packed-house New York crowd as it reaches the heights of rooting ecstasy and the deepest gloom of impending defeat.

“What is it like to quiet a New York crowd that has been all over you all night?” I asked Chimera. A grin crossed his exhausted face: “It’s the best feeling in the world.”

New York is pride, power and competition. And aggravation. Nowhere does it seem that a city’s world view, its sense of itself, so closely hangs in the balance with its teams’ fates. Decade after decade, they risk. They suffer. No crowd gloats so gloriously, blending smarts and gall. “Can you hear us?” they bellowed in unison at Boudreau, who, on Monday, said that Madision Square Garden was kind of an old dump (it is) and that the crowds at Verizon Center were louder than they are here.

In victory, Boudreau could be gracious, no doubt grasping what a beating he’d have taken if the Rangers, who were 29-0 when leading entering the last period, had won. “I might have made a mistake by saying what I said,” Boudreau said. “Lets leave it at that and put it up to the players.”

Oh, the players heard it, too. “Losers, losers,” the fans chanted as the Caps fell behind, trying to remind Washington of its burden as the only franchise in pro sports that has blown a two-game lead in eight season-ending playoff series.

And no crowds fall so gloriously silent as those here. When Alexander Semin and Marcus Johansson scored just 57 seconds apart early in the third period to cut that 3-0 lead to 3-2, you never saw a sports arena turn into a vast haunted house so quickly. New Yorkers know what’s up. And they knew that third Caps goal to tie was coming.

They were often nearly mute, their dread perhaps infecting their team, as they waited for the blow to fall, as it finally did when the rookie Johansson scored again with 7:53 left in the third period.

And finally, throughout a scoreless overtime and then a second extra period, they screamed and slapped their heads, stood then collapsed in their seats, gasped with delight or fear as minute after agonizing minute, nobody scored. When Alex Ovechkin broke away so completely that he had the equivalent of a penalty shot against the Rangers’ great goalie, (King) Henrik Lundqvist, in the first overtime — then saw his shot batted away — the whole Garden erupted as if its soul (or a little of it) had been saved.

Decade after decade, we almost take this Big Apple pandemonium for granted — the energy, the profound, silly joy and the raw, sore-loser fury that New York fans provide. But we shouldn’t.

This city probably has the most obsessed and smartest sports crowds in the country. In some towns, people have one or two favorite teams. But give New York its due: Here, everybody knows everything about every sport. Just ask them. Wild guess: New York invented 24/7 sport-talk radio before Guglielmo Marconi invented radio itself in 1895.

But at times, under extreme duress, New York shows a front-running streak. That’s also a New York tradition. So the flip side of all that heart, knowledge and passion is a catatonic sadness when something that seemed wonderful, and almost certain, suddenly goes terribly wrong. And the silence that accompanies that New York melancholy in defeat is a non-sound that, to its rivals, is a sweet as any victory cheer. For much of the third period, and plenty of those overtimes, the Caps had the hearts of the Rangers’ fans in their mouths. And you just can’t yell that way.

In few other places in sports is there a press box seat just 20 feet from the glass behind one goal and so close to the crowd that you can reach out and touch a half-dozen Rangers fans. “No hangin’ around the net . . . Cut the crap and shoot it . . . Aw, ya gotta be kidding me.”

This evening may even put the life work of New York artists in a different perspective. For example, Woody Allen probably doesn’t have a clue about existential angst. He’s just a typical New York fan. Who exhorts the crowd here between periods? Venerable punk rocker Cyndi Lauper, belting out the names of all the boroughs, then screaming, “Come on, we can do it, New York!”

When the second period of this game produced three Rangers goals — two of them within seven seconds — the throng went into a delightful spasm of improv creativity. But when that lead evaporated, you were reminded of Yankee Stadium last October as the Texas Rangers — the who? — marched toward the World Series, not the Yankees.

Just as it was that night, the final scene here was complete delicious New York silence. A gasp escaped from thousands of throats involuntarily on Chimera’s goal. Then quiet. As the crowd filed out, a few Caps fans cheered. A woman beside me, her hair died purple, yelled, “Shut up! And get out of my house. GET OUT OF MY HOUSE.”

They care so much, just like they should. You hate ‘em. And, oh, if you’re Chimera and the Caps, do you love to beat ‘em.

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