By Mike Wise
Tuesday, April 22, 2008
They checked Alex Ovechkin hard midway through the third period, crunching his frame against the glass, popping him before he could go through the door to the bench, rest, regroup and punish the Philadelphia Flyers and their fragile psyches more.
He shrugged his shoulders, knowing he already had the best of this town and its tumbling team.
For no amount of physical pain could make up for what the most electrifying player in the NHL did to the Flyers and their jeering fan base Monday night in Game 6 of this gem of a first-round Stanley Cup playoff series. No cross-check or high stick could numb that psychological wound -- two lightning goals delivered by Ovechkin in the third period of the most important comeback by the Capitals this millennium.
Twenty years after Dale Hunter thrust Washington past a Flyers team in Game 7, after Philadelphia led that 1988 series three games to one, a young Russian dynamo has finally taken his place as the Caps' go-to scorer in the crucible.
Game 7 is, unbelievably, Tuesday night at Verizon Center, a game made possible by a stirring come-from-behind victory from two goals down in the second period, by a frustrated star who was held in check until he saved his best of the series for last. "Is this a satisfying win?" Ovechkin was asked, 11 days after he scored his last goal in the series, a month and nine days since Philly had lost on its home ice.
"It is because people don't believe us," he said. "Everyone said that we are a young team and then we won one and everybody said it's only one game and then it's done. It's not over yet. Tomorrow we have the biggest game in our career I think, and we don't stop with this. There is still the challenge to do it."
The dike that Philly had kept putting putty on, the offensive prowess of Ovechkin that had been bottled by Kimmo Timonen and a bevy of determined Flyers for all but one of the first five games? It burst in a blinding flash.
First, there was a pretty breakaway at 2 minutes 46 seconds of the third period, when Ovechkin froze Martin Biron, the Philadelphia goalie, with a little hesitation move left of the net and deposited the goal to the short side to put Washington ahead 3-2.
Then the closer, less artistry and more force, a onetime blast on the power play with 9:19 left in the game. As Ovechkin waited and waited to get untracked, hitting when he couldn't score -- yes, embellishing the contact when he was pushed off the puck -- many wondered whether he was experiencing the same first-year butterflies as Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh a year ago.
But here the kid was in Game 6, needing to score -- needing to put a volume of shots on goal because nothing else seemed to be working. He came through brilliantly. His ungodly 13-year, $124 million contract doesn't kick in until next year, but Ovechkin was poised for criticism this postseason if he couldn't find the net again.
In a blink he morphed into something none of his teammates had seen for days -- from Alex the Awestruck to Ovie the Incomparable, all his talent and power shown in full. And now it's one game for everything in this first-round classic.
One game for Ovechkin and a team Coach Bruce Boudreau describes with his favorite word -- "resilient" -- to unleash their fury, to send the Flyers home for good.
You have to love Boudreau, an NHL coach who waddles into a crestfallen room of players after Game 4, eyes 36-and-over veterans Sergei Fedorov, Donald Brashear and Olie Kolzig, and says, "Don't worry," about being down 3-1 in a playoff series, that coming back has happened before.
New Jersey, 2000, maybe, when Scott Stevens and the Devils put Eric Lindros and the Flyers to sleep in the Eastern Conference finals? Nope.
Toronto, where a certain Caps coach was promoted and demoted 26 times as a player? Uh-uh.
"Mississippi, 1999," Boudreau said last Thursday. He reminded his players after the Capitals' run looked done, a double-overtime Game 4 loss leaving Washington one defeat away from watching the NHL postseason.
"Mississippi?" a reporter inquired. "I didn't even know they had hockey there."
"Neither did they," Boudreau said. "But once they saw it, they liked it."
It's been nine years since Boudreau's Mississippi Sea Wolves came from 3-1 down against the Richmond Renegades and won the Kelly Cup and the East Coast Hockey League championship.
It's not 1988, when Hunter's goal stunned the Flyers in the Patrick Division semifinals, the last time Washington rallied from a 3-1 series deficit. But whether he's playing for the Kelly, Calder or Stanley Cup -- whether he's coaching the Muskegon Fury, the Fort Wayne Comets, the Lowell Lock Monsters, the Manchester Monarchs or those Hershey Bears, "it's still a great thought," Boudreau said. "Game 7 was double overtime and we won the championship. That's good whether it's Pee Wee or the NHL."
What he was saying was, whether you hang your hat at the Hampton Inn in Wilkes-Barre or the Four Seasons in Philadelphia, character, resolve and heart translate in dire situations. That's why Boudreau "mentioned it when it occurred," why he told his grizzled, NHL veterans and a dozen of his former minor league players not to remain dejected about Game 4, when the seeds of a comeback were planted.
It was Game 4 that changed the tenor of this series, made the Capitals believe in themselves and their mission. And it manifested itself when the Flyers were stoned on a five-on-three power play with 10 minutes left.
Down two men, Boyd Gordon, Tom Poti and Fedorov, 38 years young, lunged, sprawled, poked the puck down the ice and basically took the utter chaos befalling the Capitals and transferred it to Philadelphia. David Steckel came in for a shift, too, killing off the most crucial penalty minutes of this wild season that now careens into the District, two decades after Hunter's heart-stopper -- 20 years and five days after that majestic night in Landover.
Capitals General Manager George McPhee left a voicemail for Hunter during the day Monday. He hadn't heard back as of Monday night, but you have to believe Hunter, watching Ovechkin in Game 6, is thinking about 1988 -- as are these suddenly frightened Flyers.