By Mike Wise
Monday, April 14, 2008
In his second NHL playoff game, young Tomas Fleischmann was dropped hard to the ice by Mike Richards, a jarring, open-ice hit. No one in the pressroom could remember what period it occurred, until someone finally said, "I think he hit him every period."
The 23-year-old Czech was checked. Maliciously.
In Game 2 of his NHL postseason existence, a hurried Mike Green, all of 22, coughed up the puck that led to the Philadelphia Flyers' second goal. It was a momentary lapse for Green, so far from his two-goal night less than 48 hours earlier.
The beauty of having 12 Stanley Cup playoff novices, many from the Pennsylvania hinterlands: Most of these 20-somethings don't know of the pressure and expectation felt by the old heads, some of whom might never play for the Cup again.
The curse of such inexperience: After a stirring end to Game 1, the pixie dust eventually wears off. It becomes clear to the kids they're not in Hershey, Pa., anymore, that these aren't the American Hockey League playoffs.
Philadelphia, not Wilkes-Barre, outworked and outshot the Washington Capitals in Game 2 of their Eastern Conference first-round playoff series yesterday, siphoning every last drop of momentum the Caps created Friday night in a third-period thriller.
Laying an egg was bound to happen after having not lost a game since March 19, after losing once in 13 games and essentially using the past month and a half as a mini-postseason just to qualify for the NHL playoffs. When every regular season game feels like an elimination game, a best-of-seven series must feel like a tension-reducing balm, a chance to get your bearings.
The Capitals lost home-ice advantage, but that means almost zilch in hockey. We should be more concerned for the safety of Capitals fans than players at Wachovia Center tomorrow and Thursday night; it's illegal for Donald Brashear and Matt Bradley to have their backs.
And how long this clunker lingers, physically and psychologically, can't be gauged today; Washington's last loss before yesterday was an 5-0 eyesore in Chicago that halted a four-game winning streak and appeared to end the run -- until the Capitals ran off seven straight to close the regular season and then took Game 1 against the Flyers.
So they get a pass for being shut out 2-0 yesterday -- to a point.
It's unrealistic to believe the energy and emotion conjured up to rebound from last in the Eastern Conference to champions of the Southeast Division was going to continue forever. Yet what the youngsters plying their trade in the minor leagues a year ago should take from their opening playoff weekend is a lesson in extremes.
The low-scoring unsightliness of Game 2 resembled more of what April and May and June are about in the NHL than the glitz and gaudiness of Game 1. After a Friday night of noise and romance, this was a Sunday afternoon of hangover and homework.
Playoff hockey wasn't Friday night; that was an aberration, a once-in-an-era, 18,000-strong love-in, consummating the relationship between fans and the players they've come to embrace. Playoff hockey was Game 2, the Flyers mercilessly forechecking, keeping the pressure on Capitals goalie Cristobal Huet even with a two-goal lead.
It can be dirty, ornery and often involves a scrum in front of the crease that leads to a lucky goal. It's not just about trying to make the TV highlight reel in Vancouver.
As a supremely educated observer of the game told me of the Capitals' performance afterward, "Too many world-class players trying to make world-class plays. Dump the puck and chase. It's not pretty, but that's how you win in the playoffs."
Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen echoed those sentiments. "When we skate, when we forecheck, when we go after a team, we're a good team," he said.
Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin tried to use the Flyers as pylons a few times, resembling a young Allen Iverson going one-on-five instead of waiting for help. Green was the unfortunate recipient of between-game adjustments by Flyers Coach John Stevens, whose staff knew they couldn't let the defenseman carry the puck unmolested through the zone as he did in Game 1.
So Philly became more physical, more purposeful in their checks. Penalties -- the Flyers gave the Caps four power-play opportunities in the first period alone -- be damned. Veteran right-winger Mike Knuble did an interview with Comcast SportsNet in Philadelphia afterward, a wound oozing above his left eye. The bleeding appeared to stop, but you could see the splotches of what appeared to Mercurochrome covering the gash. If the topical antiseptic used for minor cuts and scrapes is now banned in the United States because of its mercury content, Knuble's 35-year-old Ontario grit is not.
When a Flyers writer was asked when the cut occurred, he replied, without looking up from his computer, "Knuble was born cut."
Before NBC came to Washington yesterday, the Capitals had never had a game on network television, post-lockout, that wasn't against Sidney Crosby and the rival Pittsburgh Penguins. The Sports Network, essentially Canada's ESPN (which owns roughly 25 percent of the Canadian cable station), is here because of Ovechkin and Washington. The Capitals-Flyers series is the only NHL first-round series televised in both Canada and the United States, and that's because of who plays for Washington, not who plays for Philadelphia.
But it would be wise for the Capitals not to forget these Flyers have more than a bit of ruffian in them, a stout of heart that may determine who moves on to the next round more than spectacular stick work or skill. Commissioner Gary Bettman and every NHL suit imaginable can root for Ovi and the Overachievers all they want.
But when the puck is free in the neutral zone, neither the commissioner nor his television partners can help retrieve it. It's on the kids flying off the bench, over the boards, to grow up on the fly and find that resolve.