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.
One of the game's sages mentioned that Penguins fans used to outdraw Capitals fans in Washington during Mario Lemieux's best days. As their team rallied from 4-0 down to tie the game, Penguins fans were louder and more exuberant than the home crowd.
When Evgeni Malkin, another one of those 20-year-old, From-Russia-With-Flare phenoms, scored as he was falling down near the start of the third period, the building exploded. Anyone at the concession stand would have thought the Capitals scored.
Ovechkin and Crosby were good; they combined for three assists and a goal in regulation. But Malkin was better, faking out Kolzig, making the veteran commit to a place the puck would not be shot, and scoring the winning shootout goal. Watching him, Sergei Gonchar, Ovechkin and Alexander Semin trade pleasantries in Russian afterward in a corridor outside the locker room was watching four-fifths of Russia's Olympic power play.
Crosby said afterward that he didn't believe he and Ovechkin had to rescue the league or their franchises. "I think there are other players than me and Alex who are going to help," he said. "There's a guy next to me who brings a lot of excitement." He was talking about Malkin.
Either way, none of the youngsters disappointed his hurting sport.
The loss of a season to labor strife two years ago is often blamed for hockey falling into the public-consumption abyss. Never mind NASCAR ratings burying the NHL; poker became a hotter television property before the lockout.
But the real reason hockey could not connect outside its knowing and loyal fan base was the lack of genuine star power. In the NBA, Michael Jordan seamlessly filled the void left by the retirements of Magic and Bird. The six-year gap between Gretzky and Lemieux and players of Ovechkin and Crosby's stature was too great. Gretzky retired in 1999 and Lemieux was no longer Lemieux by the new millennium. In between, there were few dynamos to wow a fading audience.
Steve Yzerman was at the end in Detroit, Mark Messier's granite jaw could still draw but his body was betraying him. Calgary's Jarome Iginla was like a lot of exciting, young NHL players: too green and not quite exhilarating enough to pick up the torch. Carolina and Tampa Bay winning Stanley Cups was nice for those franchises, but not so much for most of North America. Montreal is the last Canadian team to win the Cup, and that was 13 years ago.
Alex the Great and Sid the Kid have basically been entrusted with taking away the financial and marketing sins of all the adults who messed up the sport, the people who absolutely see Ovechkin and Crosby as their last hopes for an NHL rebirth.
Bringing their teams along for the ride last night, they lived up to their billing. In a memorable comeback by Pittsburgh capped by the shootout, they kept the faith of Hockey World -- the people happy to live vicariously through them.