Caps Pass the Test In League's Return

By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, October 6, 2005

It looked like the NHL, only updated. It looked like North American hockey, only faster and more wide open and definitely more exciting. The first NHL action in 16 months seemed both odd, novel and welcome. It was certainly more satisfying for the Washington Capitals to win a game in a season that might include a whole lot of losing.

There's more than a little repair to be done, especially when the feel-good of opening night has passed and fewer people show up and folks get used to two-line passing and restricted goaltender movement and goals being scored five to the period. But as returns go, the one in Washington was what the local team would have scripted. The new face of the franchise was the star of the game, scoring two goals, and the Capitals won, 3-2, before a decent if not rabid crowd of more than 16,000 at MCI Center.

Nine players made their Capitals debuts, and shame on you if you didn't clutch tight to a program introducing all the new faces. Perhaps you didn't know that the Capitals' Petr Sykora is The Other Petr Sykora and not The Petr Sykora, the big star in Anaheim. This Petr Sykora, the one who belongs to the Capitals, was playing in just his third NHL game.

But you're certainly pardoned for being confused the first week of the NHL Season After.

My biggest problem with the league to start the season has nothing to do with the new rules, nor the usual media obsession of how many people are attending the games. It's the most basic issue for following any sport beyond the hometown team: who is where.

It's not possible to know that right now, even if we're talking about the biggest names in the game. You knew Brett Hull was playing for Wayne Gretzky in Phoenix? Of course you didn't. Peter Forsberg is now in Philadelphia, not Colorado. Jeremy Roenick is in Los Angeles, not Philadelphia. Chris Pronger is in Edmonton, not St. Louis. Michael Peca is in Edmonton, not on Long Island.

Alexander Mogilny is in New Jersey, not Toronto. Paul Kariya is in Nashville, not Colorado. Eric Lindros is in Toronto, not in retirement.

Scott Niedermayer is in Anaheim, not New Jersey. Pavol Demitra is in Los Angeles, not St. Louis. Marian Hossa is in Atlanta, not Ottawa. And Dany Heatley is in Ottawa, not Atlanta, having been traded for Hossa. These folks, by the way, are former MVPs, Norris Trophy winners for best defenseman, Calder Trophy winners for best rookie, and Lady Byng Trophy winners for sportsmanship.

There was a staggering amount of movement involving important players in the five minutes between the resumption of business after the lockout and opening night. As if the league passed a rule requiring teams to trade half their rosters. Bad enough that Mark Messier, Scott Stevens and Ron Francis retired. Players retire every year. But teams don't turn over entire rosters every year. Did you know Dominik Hasek is in Ottawa, not Detroit? Or that Nikolai Khabibulin is in Chicago? Or that the Pittsburgh Penguins are loaded for another run at the Stanley Cup, having acquired not only rookie Sidney Crosby but Sergei Gonchar, Ziggy Palffy, John LeClair and Mark Recchi?

It's going to take until the all-star break to figure out who is playing where. But at least the NHL seems sincere about making good on its big promises of opening up the game to increase scoring and showcase the talents of the league's most talented players. Okay, it's not Olympic hockey yet; it's not that pure a game and aspires to be anything but. But it's great not having the action stopped 50 percent of the time by offsides penalties.

The first goal last night was a perfect example of how two-line passing will change the game dramatically. Columbus center Gilbert Brule flipped a pass three-quarters of the ice to Dan Fritsche, who sneaked a shot past Olie Kolzig. And even when long passes didn't create distinct scoring chances it did make for a more exciting back-and-forth flow, not that neutral zone dumping favored by the New Jersey Devils, among others. Who in the world is going to miss neutral zone traps and goaltenders padded up like the Michelin Man roaming 25 feet from the net to impede the flow of the game?

One can only hope the zebras continue to call every game like they did Blue Jackets vs. Capitals last night. The fear is, to quote one of my media buddies, that calling obstruction penalties on opening night is like flossing the day after you have your teeth cleaned. A month later, you can't even find the floss, and you wonder if by the beginning of December the linesman will be able to find his whistle to call an obstruction penalty. If Commissioner Gary Bettman can insist on anything this season, let it be that.

As of now, if you obstruct, you're going to the penalty box. If you hook, you're going to the box. The Capitals were called for six penalties in the first period. The Blue Jackets were hit with a four-minute penalty for high-sticking. Grab the other guy's stick -- take a seat for a couple of minutes, pal.

Of course, if you're going to take maximum advantage of these new rules (even if they're only half-enforced in the long run) you've got to have players with serious open-ice skills. And goodness, do the Capitals appear to have one in Alex Ovechkin, the rookie phenom who scored two goals in a rather electrifying debut.

It's not just that Ovechkin is supremely skilled, which he is. It's not just that he seems, eerily, to be where the puck is an instant before it arrives. The kid may be only 20 but he's also a showman, demonstrative without being obnoxious. Only seconds into his first game, on his very first shift, he delivered a big hit, a KO that made you go, "Ooooh." He skates away from defensemen, hits like a freight train, finishes scoring chances. Well, there was that breakaway goal he let slip away on a deke, but let's not get picky. On the nights that the Capitals are overmatched, which figure to be plenty this season, it can be enough to come and watch a kid evolve from potentially great to the finished product.

And if that happens over time, for a franchise that has yearned for that signature great player, the wait will have probably been worth it.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company