By Mike Wise
Sunday, February 1, 2009
When you're about 10 points up in your own division and you've already beaten a number of good teams nearly 50 games into the NHL season, the temptation is to believe you're now an upper-echelon franchise. Or at least convince yourself that the purpose and passion needed for a playoff run can be summoned at any moment in April.
The natural onset of complacency that follows is forgivable in the case of the Detroit Red Wings.
Hey, hoist four Stanley Cups in 11 years, midseason funks and all, and your mantra can almost become, "You only have to be in it to win it."
But that same momentary loss of urgency should be downright intolerable for the Capitals, who need to remind themselves constantly that they're much better than a first-round-and-out playoff team. They need to beat the NHL elite now, because May and June haven't exactly been promised over the years.
It's why seeing Alex Ovechkin become flammable in the third period yesterday, scoring twice to put away the defending Stanley Cup champions at a very loud Verizon Center, had to be so heartening to his coach, Bruce Boudreau, and the Capitals' base of believers.
It's why witnessing three players frantically ward off six desperate Red Wings trying to score in the final minute portends real progression for the Caps, today greater Washington's only bona fide contender for a professional sports title.
"I told them that we came together as a team," Boudreau said after the Caps snuffed out the Red Wings' multiple chances in the final 1 minute 25 seconds of a 4-2 win. "Everyone was blocking shots and doing whatever it took to preserve the win. That was nice to see."
How much the Caps can take from this victory is debatable. The Red Wings, after all, were missing two front-line players because of injuries, Tomas Holmstrom and Henrik Zetterberg. Holmstrom is a monster in the crease; without him Detroit's power play, the best in the NHL, suffers. And Zetterberg might be the best two-way player in hockey right now.
Throw in the relative good health of the Capitals and the fact that they beat Ty Conklin, not Chris Osgood, in goal -- and that the Red Wings entered the game in the midst of their first four-game losing streak in nearly a year -- and Detroit was a good bet to go down.
But at the same time, that's the NHL regular season. Before a team's greatness is defined in May and June, they have to show signs in the regular season, and the Caps have now consistently shown they belong in the Boston-Detroit-Montreal conversation.
What really happened on the ice yesterday was another example of why the Capitals can never again be Ovie and the Overachievers.
They deservedly had that label last season, when, 13 games into Boudreau's tenure, they surprised the Red Wings in Detroit before falling in overtime, 4-3. Just a year later, they expected to win and halt their own two-game skid. Ovechkin, who missed so many chances early but persevered, expected to expand his league-leading total of goals to 33.
"It's a huge victory for us," he said. "It gives us a lot of confidence. They were missing a couple players, but it's very important to play an experienced team and this game meant a lot to us."
Was yesterday a playoff atmosphere? They certainly wouldn't say that in Detroit, many of whose hard-core, Hockeytown USA legions witnessed their team's first visit in more than three years.
But with two teams dropping their past five combined games recently, it had some of the flavor and vibe of a late-January conflict both of these clubs needed badly to prevail in.
Big hits. Unorthodox goals, including Nicklas Backstrom's falling-down assist to Mike Green, who planted a rocket in the net. And that insane, penalty-killing odyssey that thwarted the Red Wings at the end.
The Capitals had not beat Detroit in this building in more than eight years, and the Red Wings were one of just two franchises that an Ovechkin-led team had not beaten. (San Jose still has his number.)
If nothing else, it gave an indication that when the stakes are raised, the Capitals will be able to play with the kind of franchise every NHL franchise aspires to be.
Sergei Fedorov, who once plied his trade in Detroit on one of the game's greatest rosters, was asked afterward whether Washington could ever seriously be considered in the same vein as Detroit as a hockey town, as learned and loyal as Red Wings' fans.
"It's possible," he said, thinking about it for a moment. "But lots of things have to happen."
"Well, you have to start with winning a championship first, right?"
Before that, of course, you have to qualify for the postseason and then get out of the first round. And before that, you have to beat the defending Stanley Cup champions in the regular season, to drive home the point you're ready to contend yourself.
Those were indeed significant baby steps made in a Saturday matinee, as necessary for the Capitals to take as they were for the Red Wings to feel.