The Dawning Of a New Ice Age

By Mike Wise
Tuesday, December 12, 2006

'This is going to be something, isn't it?" George McPhee said, hopefully. Moments before the opening faceoff of a regular season NHL game, the general manager of the Capitals echoed a league's thoughts.

The insiders, heaping praise on the two young men everyone paid to see. NHL owners, many of them still in the red. And the largest media contingent for a Washington hockey game since the 2004-05 lockout. TSN, Canada's ESPN, peddled Capitals-Penguins as if a Canadian team were on the brink of playing for the Stanley Cup. Everyone stayed on message.

"This is going to be something, isn't it?"

There was such desperation in the air, such neediness in Hockey World, it felt a little like Parents-Push-Their-Kids-Night at Verizon Center.

Young Alex Ovechkin, 21, and Sidney Crosby, 19, can't just be two pulsating, wunderkinds reinvigorating two struggling NHL markets; poor lads, they also are expected to save the game in the Lower 48.

Luckily, the children had help, a tremendous subplot to help them work the crowd and a large North American viewing audience. The Capitals and Penguins swapped goals, punches and, finally, three hours after it began, the lead. They bled and bored ahead and rekindled what was once a bona fide Eastern Conference rivalry.

Yes, last night's 5-4 stirring victory by the Penguins further punctured the Caps' belief in their ability to close teams out. They're now 0 for 5 in shootouts. But this wild affair also gave credence to how far these teams have come in just one season.

The Capitals surged to a 4-0 lead, playing bing-bang, pinball hockey while roughing up Crosby. They bullied the kid against the boards. At one juncture, the Capitals' Brian Pothier just pinned Crosby in the corner, pushing him back, making him skate in place until he saw fit to let him go.

Then the Penguins started chipping away, becoming more aggressive, putting up a couple of goals before inexplicably tying the game before the end of the second period.

Suddenly, it wasn't about two kids bedazzling a league; it was about two lousy clubs from a year ago deciding they were in the beginning stages of resembling playoff teams. What tremendous theater in early December, considering a year ago yesterday the Capitals had 10 fewer points and seven more losses, considering these teams finished 14th (Capitals) and 15th (Penguins) in the East last season.

Ovechkin easily is the most exciting player in the league, but that was expected. The Capitals are better because of the maturation of their secondary players. Guys like Matt Pettinger, Brian Sutherby, Shaone Morrisonn and Mike Green, who was playing in minor league Hershey most of last season, developed much quicker than the organization thought they would.

Olie Kolzig has been outstanding, stopping more shots than any other NHL goalie. But he's not having to work as hard behind his defense as he did a year ago. And Kolzig's backup, Brent Johnson, has not been bad at all. All of that, plus Pittsburgh's resurgence, led to some riveting theater.

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