By Jason La Canfora
Tuesday, April 22, 2008
PHILADELPHIA There's a backward stereotype that still percolates around NHL rinks, the one about many European players being soft and not built for the playoff grind. It's bandied about quietly among hockey people, many of whom were watching this young Capitals team very closely to gauge how their neophyte Russians and Swedes would fare.
They wondered if Alexander Semin (Russian) and Nicklas Backstrom (Swede) could adjust to the heightened physicality of the game, the lack of abundant space to operate, the need to sometimes abandon overly creative play and simply dump the puck. Winger Alex Ovechkin -- a wrecking ball of a Russian who loves landing crushing checks nearly as much as scoring goals -- was largely exempt from the glare, already secure of pristine reputation. ("Ovechkin's as Canadian as Gordie Howe," one general manager said before the series. "But I'm not sure how some of their other Europeans will respond.")
Turns out the kids are just fine, in fact, good enough to force a Game 7 with the big, bad Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday at Verizon Center. Semin, 24, and Backstrom, 20, were catalysts again, each scoring in the second period at Wachovia Center to erase a two-goal deficit. Then Ovechkin, 22, languishing offensively but always exuding heart, finished a picture-perfect breakaway and pounded a seeing-eye one-timer for third-period goals, and a 4-2 victory.
The Flyers and Capitals are contrasts in team-building, particularly their forward groups. Washington's top two lines are composed almost entirely of Europeans, in many cases countrymen to complement Ovechkin. Philadelphia, the last team to fully embrace the NHL's European influx, features just two Europeans among its top 12 forwards, and employs a more straight-forward style, while Washington plays a more free-flowing game.
There is no one template for success, of course, and when the Detroit Red Wings won back-to-back Stanley Cups 10 years ago with a plethora of Europeans in key roles, including a vaunted Russian Five unit (five Russian skaters on the ice at once), norms were changing. But for some old habits die hard -- the Canadians invented this game, remember, and treat it occasionally with the same jingoistic fervor the English sometimes apply to soccer -- and Philadelphia's sports talk airwaves were brimming with vitriol and references to "filthy Rooskies" Monday afternoon.
Semin and Backstrom have swung this series, perhaps for good, after being thrown together by Coach Bruce Boudreau for Game 4 (Backstrom previously centered Ovechkin). They are known for skill and finesse, yet have shined in the most physical time of year against the Broad Street Bullies, no less.
"Those guys have made a transformation [to the NHL playoffs] really quickly, which is really impossible to do without experience," said Russian center Sergei Fedorov, the target of much abuse when he entered the NHL in 1990, and a member of Detroit's three Cup-winning teams. "I'm really happy for those two guys and for our team, that those young guys found a way to play well in the most incredible and intense circumstances."
Semin and Backstrom have combined for six goals and 10 points in the last three games after amassing just three assists in the first three contests. Neither has shied away from a hit, or the puck, despite Washington facing elimination and a once-daunting 3-1 series deficit. Semin, still prone to retaliatory penalties, stabilized early in Game 4, when he mixed it up with Daniel Brière and began to initiate more contact. Backstrom and Semin each netted his first postseason goal in that loss -- a 4-3 defeat in double-overtime -- and have blossomed since.
"I like that they're making plays together, and who knows what's going to happen when you throw new lines together?" Boudreau said. "You just hope."
The synergy between Semin and Backstrom on Washington's first goal Monday night was nothing short of sublime.
They traded four rapid, one-touch passes -- puck movement of the highest order -- before Backstrom beat goalie Martin Biron. "I think it was one extra pass, but it worked this time," Backstrom said. Semin pounced on Biron's failure to glove a high shot with about two minutes left in the second period, and suddenly the game was tied, and this arena silent.
"Those guys are both sick," Ovechkin said of Semin and Backstrom, a complimentary term among the young set. "That line is getting results right now for our team. Semin finally finds himself, how he has to play. You can see how he can create and get comfortable and control the puck."
Ovechkin, without a goal since Game 1, delivered his second signature moment of this series (his game-winning score from the series opener will not soon be forgotten), skating free from center ice on his breakaway, then burying the Flyers when they were caught with too many men on the ice.
"I think for him, personally, it was huge," Brooks Laich said of Ovechkin's breakthrough. "He was taking some heat" from the media.
Yes, the Capitals had lived dangerously again (falling behind quickly, too many turnovers, another too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty, facing an extended five-on-three in the third period). But the penalty killers were tremendous late (kudos to Fedorov, Tom Poti and Boyd Gordon there), goalie Cristobal Huet was stellar and the kids put the puck in the net in the biggest game of the year, when no one else could.