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Beaten To the Punch

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The Washington Post's Jason La Canfora breaks down the Capitals' 6-3 loss to Philadelphia in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. Audio: Jason La Canfora/The Washington PostEditor: Jonathan Forsythe/washingtonpost.comPhotos courtesy of: The Washington Post, AP, Getty

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By Mike Wise
Wednesday, April 16, 2008

PHILADELPHIA

Can't Gary Bettman pay off someone to ensure his meal ticket for the next decade advances to the second round? Doesn't Tim Donaghy live close by? Does he still have his whistle? Can he skate?

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The Washington Capitals and their star Alex Ovechkin, the closest thing the NHL has to Kobe and LeBron, need some kind of help if they are going to genuinely awaken America to their game again.

All the pretty goals the playoff push promised? If Ovechkin can't shake loose soon, this Eastern Conference quarterfinal might go to the dogs soon.

The tenor of this rugged series is terrible news for hockey progressives everywhere, the way the Flyers have punked a nice bunch of free skaters who train in Ballston and used to be among the most feared offensive teams in the NHL.

A few Capitals employees nodded their heads approvingly when Mike Green squared off with Philadelphia's Scottie Upshall at the outset of the third period, as if to say, "Finally." But lost in the moment was an ugly truth: Green had never gotten into a fight at any level of the game according to HockeyFights.com, which tracks scraps all the way back to juniors.

When the Caps' offensive-minded defenseman lost it, Philly had won: Washington was trying to play the Flyers' bump-and-grind game.

Midway through the third period of this demoralizing 6-3 loss at Wachovia Center, 20,000 people in fluorescent orange howled for their World Extreme Cagefighters, and a crowd in the upper bowl chanted vulgarities at Ovechkin that went beyond the bounds of loutish fan behavior. As the frothing masses left the arena, they felt good about the bull being struck and killed -- checking the multi-generational Russian wizards Ovechkin and Sergei Fedorov into humility as much as the boards.

Give the Flyers proper respect: They were the team playing at the Capitals' former level, bum-rushing toward the goal at full speed, hitting everything in their sight.

This must gnaw at George McPhee's gut, especially the way the Capitals' general manager used to give no quarter as a player, unafraid to swap blows with bigger, stronger players.

But the Capitals hurt themselves, too: They couldn't get out of their own end for minutes at a time. Washington looked timid for much of the first two periods, the best four-on-four team in the NHL a month ago -- when each team is a man down -- mishandling the puck, losing its confidence with each careless cross-rink pass.

They stood around on the power play, waiting for someone to get open. Philadelphia has some rugged penalty-killers, quick and physical players who shave off two minutes of being a man down as if they prefer it to skating five-on-five.


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