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Beaten To the Punch

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?

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.

The Flyers act like they would rather demoralize a psychologically wounded offense than score a short-handed goal.

Except for a pretty hesitation-and-fire goal from Green on the right wing in the second period and a score in Game 1, Washington is now 2 for 15 in power-play opportunities, a mere 13.3 percent.

For most of the evening, there was this unmistakable air of testosterone coming from the Flyers' direction that just reeked of physicality, a way of exerting their mauling style on the Capitals that just sent their denizens into some medieval state of euphoria.

"We want to make it physical between the whistles," Flyers Coach John Stevens said. "I think it's important for no other reason then it's the best tool we have to defend, to be honest with you. I think it's very important that we move our feet and finish our checks and get people pushed off the puck."

Translation: "We will keep punking the Caps until the NHL commissioner tells us not to."

Did we mention they show fights on the video scoreboard every period here, more than most arenas show dunks in the NBA?

Something about this R-rated environment is just not conducive to Ted Leonsis' Family Pack Night or Ovie on Ice. The contrasts are so stark and revealing.

The Caps' postseason slogan: "Rock The Red." The Flyers? "Vengeance Now," which comes across as less of a slogan and more of a sequel to Charles Bronson's "Death Wish."

The Capitals didn't come out as Eastern Conference foes; they entered the playing surface like Russell Crowe entered the Coliseum in "Gladiator." Flyer fans didn't want to beat Washington as much as see Ovechkin bludgeoned, his teammates emasculated.

It's almost impossible to fathom, but the Capitals took the ice in front of a building as loud as Verizon Center last Friday. The fans wore orange instead of the Capitals' red, and many of the women and children looked as if they could work security for Megadeth.

On I-95 entering town there is a billboard of Riley Cote, a stumpy rogue who engaged in 24 fights this season, twice as many as Capitals tough guy Donald Brashear. Cote's wild-man eyes and his quick fists are the only features shown of the Flyers' player.

Five minutes into the game, they showed a video of Philly's top brawls this past season, many involving Cote grabbing hold of an opponents' shirt for leverage before pummeling him to the ice, which is just a swell environment for children -- children of Patrick Roy.

They flat-out market and sell violence here, sanctioned, unbridled assaults disguised as sport.

The Flyers are an instant repudiation of what Gary Bettman wanted the league to become. They are a reminder of the NHL's pugilistic past that just won't go away. The result Tuesday night was Hartnell and Daniel Brière popping Cristobal Huet, making the Caps' goalie retaliate because no one on his team seemed interested in having his back at the moment.

Hartnell has become an annoying gnat in the crease, buzzing around Huet's ear now for two games as if he owns the area.

Unless Ovie and the Overachievers get untracked offensively soon and the sublime choreography of teamwork returns to the Capitals' line, there is but one hope left.

Quick, someone find a number for Donaghy.

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