By Mike Wise
Monday, April 20, 2009
When I heard a befuddled Alex Ovechkin talk of another surprising playoff loss -- "I didn't expect it, but what can I say?" -- a sudden clarity began to take shape.
The behavior of his Russian teammates the past week almost sealed it.
Viktor Kozlov, the veteran, making rookie mistakes. Alexander Semin, playing as uninspired in Game 2 as Sergei Fedorov in Game 1. Why Washington's greatly skilled hockey team has not won a first-round Stanley Cup playoff game against the inferior New York Dump-the-Puckers continued to conjure up eerie coincidences.
Think about it. Ovie and his countrymen (the Capitals employ five Russians, more than any other NHL team) wear customary red on the ice. They have blank stares afterward and are unable to explain their stunning demise against a bunch of chippy guys, many of whom, like Colton Orr, would be playing in the Eastern Professional Hockey League if they couldn't fight.
The heavy underdogs wear white uniforms with blue and red trim, with no discernible star to speak of on their roster. They raise their sticks and joyously surround their goalie afterward.
Did we mention John Tortorella, the Rangers' angry coach who often chastises his players like the late Herb Brooks, is also the U.S. national team coach?
Can't you see?
Said Slava Malamud, my colleague from the Russian newspaper Sport-Ekspress, "Wow, how ironic is it that they show the clips from the movie 'Miracle' during the game up above on the scoreboard?"
"I think you might have something there," Slava said, adding, "Well, not really. But you can try."
Hey, it's an off day.
What do you want, more drivel about Henrik Lundqvist stoning 67 of 70 shots in two games, how New York's goalie looks like Patrick Roy, circa 1996, Denver?
Or the hedonistic Rangers, those few-fries-short-of-a-Happy-Meal players, who are stupidly unafraid to be struck in the lower extremities by a hard rubber projectile traveling up to 100 mph? What kind of warped team wants to block 50 slap shots in two games?
Really, it's hard to rationally explain how Ovechkin, the soon-to-be two-time MVP of the NHL, and the league's most talented young cast of players are in this predicament. How do the Caps find themselves down two games to none after two home games, a deficit just eight teams in Stanley Cup postseason history have been able to extricate themselves from?
Against such a pedestrian playoff team no less, one they dominated in the regular season.
My theory is overconfidence, the same damaging trait the former Soviet Union developed 29 years ago when it routed a bunch of American college kids 10-3 at Madison Square Garden, the site of Game 3 tonight, in an exhibition prior to the 1980 Winter Games.
On the similarities go, right down to Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau shockingly yanking his starting goalie for a 20-something Russian after Game 1. Viktor Tikhonov controversially pulled the legendary goalie Vladislav Tretiak against the U.S. team after the first period in favor of a 24-year-old who gave up two third-period goals in the historic upset. (The slight difference being that José Theodore was not exactly legendary and everyone but Theodore's family wanted Boudreau to give him the hook.)
But hang with us on this one. After all, who unleashed Chris Drury, Mr. Apple Pie himself, in Game 2?
Remember the pudgy, apple-cheeked 12-year-old who pitched little Trumbull, Conn., past mighty Taiwan in the Little League World Series 20 years ago this summer? The guy who has won, in order, a Pee Wee League national hockey title, the Little League championship, a state high school hockey championship, a national hockey title at Boston University, a Stanley Cup with Colorado and an Olympic silver medal. Yeah, he's a Ranger.
Tortorella, who looks as if he burst from the womb agitated, has more wins than any American-born coach in NHL history. These are his overachieving scrappers. This is his Lake Placid.
"I think you are reaching here, because if Rangers beat the Capitals it's probably not even as big an upset if Columbus beats Detroit or Anaheim beats San Jose," Slava Malamud said.
Eh, what does Slava know? He wasn't there in 1980, like his predecessor Seva Kukushkin, the 66-year-old Tass news agency veteran, who once told me what it felt like to report back to the other side after the Soviets had amazingly lost in 1980.
"A man at the main press center bet me silver dollar his Americans would win that day," Seva said. "I bet him silver ruble with seal of Soviet Union. This was nice coin."
In 1994 at the Lillehammer Games, Mike Eruzione admitted to Seva that the Soviets would have won nine of 10 games played between the teams, adding, 'Hey, it happens.' "
It's happening now, to a cluster of favored Russians in red who have no answer for these determined, plucky guys in the red, white and blue and their live-wire coach of the national team.
All that's left is two more stunning Ranger victories, Al Michaels making the historic call, Lundqvist searching for his father in the stands and Alex Ovechkin and friends politely shaking hands with their unheralded conquerors.
Les misérables on ice.
What? Like I said, it's an off day.