By Mike Wise
Friday, February 1, 2008
There are majestic nights at Verizon Center, nights when all the promises made to the unfailingly patient fans of this once-woeful organization seem on the cusp of being kept. There are nights like last night, when old man Olie dives and blocks the puck in the final seconds of regulation, and young buck Ovie sends the boisterous and believing home with an incomparable fourth goal in overtime -- nights when everything the owner and general manager of the Washington Capitals said was going to happen all seems real and immediate.
The Caps won an absolute thriller over Montreal, 5-4, giving all of a 3-0 lead back, before Olie Kolzig helped bail them out and Alexander Ovechkin sent about 15,000 into a tizzy with his first four-goal game at home -- and the second in 34 days -- in his already scintillating career.
Meanwhile, Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau, a minor league lifer who had 26 call-ups and demotions as a player in Toronto, has the fastest start as a coach in franchise history and has Washington within three points of a playoff berth with 30 games to play.
Hockey may not yet be boffo box office again in the District, gauging by the empty seats. But at some point, even the casual puckhead is going to find it hard to stay away from Boudreau's risky, gambling offensive style.
Watching Ovechkin and the Caps is like watching a greased pinball careen off bumpers for two hours. Yeah, they let a few through the flippers. But mostly the lights flash, the scoreboard lights up and the masses shuffle into the night feeling good about how they spent their quarter.
Ovechkin now leads the National Hockey League in scoring with 70 points, and essentially completed a hat trick plus one after he broke his nose for the fifth time in his young career.
"How badly did it hurt?" he was asked of the hit that fractured his schnoz. "It's fifth time broke my nose, so it's okay," he said in the halting English of any young Russian kid happy to come to America and sign a contract for $124 million. "I get used to it."
"It look bigger, yeah?" he added.
"Yeah, it's swollen," a reporter replied.
It is an expressive nose, flattened, expansive. It's as if Ovechkin borrowed it from brawler Carmen Basilio, circa 1950. Or Karl Malden, 1970. Ovie's nose doesn't belong to his face; his face belongs to it.
It was the first time the kid scored more than two goals at home, and the occasion seemed to numb the pain.
"I try it all the time, but today was special day," he said. "I broke my nose, I have stitches, I score four goals."
How about Boudreau, Mr. Meat and Potatoes, who has 18 victories in his 31 games? Nine of this season's 10 comeback wins have come under the guy who replaced Glen Hanlon on Thanksgiving and had the interim tag removed the day after Christmas.
He inherited a Hanlon team that had got off to the most abysmal start in franchise history -- six wins in 21 games. Today, the Caps have resurrected a lost season without four injured players, including Michael Nylander, who's out for the season. If the salaries of the injured players are factored in, Boudreau is winning with a $30 million payroll. To the delight of General Manager George McPhee and owner Ted Leonsis, he also ruined a planned coaching search.
Leonsis and McPhee had it all figured out. Give the lifer, who spent 32 years in the minors as a coach and player, a shot to stabilize things and see what he can do. Then wait until after the holidays and pursue a known coaching quantity, like Pat Burns, Pat Quinn or someone like ESPN's Barry Melrose.
But Boudreau got the Caps attacking. He catered to their strengths and made their opponents fear them, not the other way around.
"Glen was technically a wonderful coach, but he didn't want to make mistakes," Leonsis said. "He wanted to win 2-1, right? With Bruce, he wants teams to succumb to our will. He's not afraid of making mistakes, which means we're going to win games 5-4."
This was a bit of a character-test game. Montreal, another young team scrapping for a postseason berth, was the perfect measuring stick for Washington. The Canadiens thoroughly beat the Caps on Tuesday night in Montreal, and Ovechkin and every line Boudreau sicced on the Canadiens responded at home 48 hours later.
Who knows where the Caps go from here, but this isn't just a good Washington story; the Caps are clearly becoming one of the best tales in the NHL.
Think about it: Boudreau, who was coaching in Hershey about two months ago, suddenly has taken the wraps off a nearly finished product. He comes along at a time when one of those once-in-a-millennium players has graced his roster, and he's not afraid to tell the kid to shoot from the point and worry about defense later.
"I was blessed to come along at a time when Alex is here," he said last night in the Verizon Center hallway. "It's no different than Glen Sather with a young Wayne Gretzky or Michel Therrien with Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh. We all watched greatness at different times and you're seeing it now.
"Sometimes good fortune follows you," he said.
And sometimes it rifles in a puck in overtime, sending the crowd into loud and sustained applause, knocking off Montreal and making up for all the depressing losses and the bad remnants from a lockout. It was just one of those majestic nights.