By Thomas Boswell
Sunday, April 20, 2008
For much of the past 25 years, the knock on the Capitals in springtime was that, when the going got tough in the NHL playoffs and Washington faced a win-or-go-on-vacation game, the guys in the red, white and blue uniforms couldn't wait to make their tee times. In all, the Capitals faced 23 such elimination games and lost 19 of them. Of the four they won, three were in the same playoff series, 20 long years ago.
Thus, all the golf jokes stuck to the Capitals. Once the Masters was finished, the Capitals would be done soon, too. Why, sometimes it seemed they just couldn't wait to change sticks.
Not this new Capitals bunch. They just want to keep playing hockey. Apparently, nobody explained the local tradition to them. Yesterday, they played a nearly perfect first period, took a 2-0 lead early in the second that they never relinquished and beat the Flyers, 3-2, at Verizon Center to force a Game 6 in Philadelphia tomorrow.
"We can play an even better game on Monday," said goalie Cristobal Huet, who saved the season by making 20 stops in a furious third-period assault. "I like our chances."
This headstrong crew, which got its goals from young Nicklas Backstrom, 20, and Alexander Semin, 24, plus 38-year-old Sergei Fedorov, has a novel new modus operandi. They don't want to visit the cherry blossoms or wangle their way onto Congressional in April. They don't want to heal their bodies and congratulate themselves after a 4 1/2 -month push, from last place into the playoffs, that already has given them more dignity than most teams ever claim.
"We're going to leave everything in that building in Philadelphia," rookie coach Bruce Boudreau said. "I don't know what we'll have left for Game 7 [back at the Phone Booth on Tuesday], if there is one. But we'll be ready on Monday."
So, freeze 'em in a block of NHL ice, grill them like a Philly cheesesteak, put them behind three games to one to the veteran Flyers, but these Capitals just don't want to take the easy way out and call it a season. Instead, these goofballs call for more tape and gauze. Just fix their bloody noses and chipped teeth as fast as possible. They want to keep playing smelly, bloody, smash-my-face-into-the-glass-one-more-time hockey for as long as they possibly can.
"This was the team's best game. Nobody thinks about personal stats. It's good for us to play more games. It's great fun, great experience and we improve," said likely NHL MVP Alex Ovechkin, 22, who once again was held without a goal by sweet-skating defenseman Kimmo Timonen, who barely touches the Caps star yet seems to cut off his every angle and anticipate his moves. Of their visit to Philly, Ovechkin said: "We don't have time to make mistakes. It's going to be hard. But we can do it. We don't care what anybody says about us."
And if there is a Game 7?
"Our crowd is great," Ovechkin said. "They will push us."
Because the Capitals are both the physically bigger and the younger team, with Fedorov the only elder statesman, back-to-back games might favor Washington.
"It could work in our favor," said Capitals General Manager George McPhee, who knows how tough it will be to force Game 7 on Tuesday. Even this must-win for Washington, a game Philadelphia could afford to squander, went down to the wire with a late Flyers goal leading to a wild final 4 minutes 43 seconds, with Philadelphia in almost complete control throughout the entire final period.
"This one was tough on the ticker," McPhee said, tapping his chest. "We dominated them early. But they outplayed us late."
So the Capitals won a vital game and continued to play far better in the last two games than they did in the first three, yet ironically the Flyers left the ice with considerable confidence, even momentum.
"They really came at us hard. That's a lesson we learned that won't happen again," Flyers Coach John Stevens said. "But we showed our belly as the game progressed."
The key to yet another Capitals comeback in this remarkable season probably will hinge on Ovechkin, though Washington hates to put the problem so bluntly. The star's frustration is obvious on the ice, where he seldom found room to create and failed to cash his few plausible scoring chances. Even after this game, the Great Eight remained grim-jawed in victory.
"My goal, it's coming," Ovechkin said. "But if we win and I don't score, I don't care."
Predicted McPhee, "Once Alex gets one, he'll get a bunch."
But will he get that crucial igniting score in time to help save this series? Experience can't be taught, only acquired. And the clock is ticking on the Caps. Just 20 of the 223 NHL teams that have trailed three games to one have come back to win. The Capitals likely won't be able to do it without more firepower from their 65-goal scorer.
On the power play, Ovechkin's role has changed during the series as he's moved in front of the goal, to use his strength and quickness to cause havoc, rather than taking slap shots from the point.
"Timonen has been solid against Alex," the Capitals' Matt Cooke said. "But Alex has not been sitting back because he's not scoring the way he did in the regular season. He's getting hits, forechecking. He's helping by doing everything else."
"Alex had two or three pretty good chances," said Boudreau, who has switched Fedorov to Ovechkin's line while teaming Semin and Backstrom. "And he had five shots in the first period. But we're not a one-line team. Timonen is doing a fabulous job, but it's tough to stop both of them."
In fact, Semin and Fedorov had assists as well as goals.
As the Capitals head to Philadelphia, one crucial word hangs over them all: experience. They lack it yet gain it with every game.
"We showed our lack of playoff experience in the first three games. We had a dozen guys who'd never been in one," McPhee said. "But by Game 7, they'll all be veterans."
Whatever happens, the Capitals have had a season to celebrate and gained experience that will help define their future. However, if they are to salvage this series and ruin their chances of enjoying even one moment of Washington's lovely springtime, then the most gifted of all their young players -- Ovechkin -- must join the experience-gathering party.
The experience he needs tomorrow, and perhaps Tuesday as well, is the same one that he has enjoyed his entire hockey life. Whether he's shadowed by Kimmo Timonen or not, the Great Eight needs to start making that familiar red light go on again.