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Pretender Label Tossed Aside -- for Now

By Mike Wise
Tuesday, April 21, 2009

NEW YORK

It's unclear whether the NHL's highest-paid scout gleaned any tips from watching a portion of the Rangers practice Monday morning, a breach of puck etiquette that got Alex Ovechkin booted from Madison Square Garden by an unnerved ankle-taper from the other side.

But what chutzpah, no, spying on the enemy on their own ice? What moxie, toying with a team's psyche after they've already gotten into your head. What a tremendous omen for Washington's once-reeling Stanley Cup playoff team.

Several hours after Earth's most famous hockey player was tossed from a building marketed as the world's most famous arena, the enigma known as Alexander Semin recoiled his stick with malice and scored twice in the first period. Donald Brashear returned with force from injury, mixing it up with John Tortorella's assigned cretins moments after his first shift. The Capitals, in the inimitable words of their coach, Bruce Boudreau, "were committed."

Suddenly, Game 3 was on, a series finally born in the middle of Manhattan, in the middle of the Garden.

Somewhere between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m. on Monday, the Capitals found the serrated edge of a hard-featured, Carnegie Deli waitress of maybe 50. They found the same defiant competitive streak that makes these throaty people roar for the hungry team that went up 2-0 in the Eastern Conference first-round series over the weekend in Washington.

Facing the prospect of a 3-0 deficit that would have done everything but end its season, fighting its one-and-done demons from a year ago against the Flyers, Bruce Boudreau's reinvigorated club found the commitment its coach spoke of when talking about the Rangers on Sunday.

What did those training-camp T-shirts say? "Good isn't good enough, that's basically what Bruce told us," David Steckel said afterward.

Ovechkin, patting his chest in a corridor leading to the locker room: "No excuses this time. Tired of the losses. We just had to play with more heart."

The Caps had a resilient bounce-back game trailing Philadelphia by two games a year ago, but by then it was 3-1 before they grasped how grit and guile make lesser-talented players take out aesthetically superior teams still trying to find their character.

They needed this game more than they needed Game 5 against the Flyers a year ago for a simple reason: expectations. They lose that series, four games to one rather than in seven games, and the book on the Caps is they're still a year away while finding out the hard way what playoff hockey means.

They go down 3-0 Monday night and they're officially postseason softies, still not desperate enough, and all the old questions resurface:

How long until they find a goalie good enough to bail them out when the guy across the ice is turning away everything?

Will Simeon Varlamov -- who, by the way, was outstanding in Game 3 and whom Boudreau should really think twice about before going back to José Theodore in Game 4 (kidding, Gabby) -- take as long to grow up in the postseason as the rest of the wunderkinds?

How can the universally acknowledged best player in the game, outside of Pittsburgh and Nova Scotia, not take his team to the second round of the playoffs in his fourth year in the league?

(For all this talk about Ovie and Sid the Kid saving hockey like Magic and Bird saved the NBA, remember that only one of them has been part of a long playoff run and neither has won a Stanley Cup. By 1984, Bird and Magic's fifth year, they had already combined for three titles and had opposed each other in the NBA Finals.)

And, lastly, does this club George McPhee put together and Ted Leonsis shelled out good money for have the stomach to match its skill level, the passion to equal its panache?

Those questions remain unanswered after one spirited effort, but at least the Capitals showed the pulse of a team that wants it as bad as New York in Game 3; at least they didn't wait for an elimination game to respond. The signs were all over.

Blair Betts, a kamikaze sort who has blocked more shots than anyone in the series, had a breakaway at one point in the second period. Mike Green ran him down and then ran him into the boards.

Ovechkin chased down Lauri Korpikoski, who had a breakaway, and somehow launched his stick at the puck without committing a penalty.

They scrapped, they scored and they managed to get under Sean Avery's thin skin, until the stumpy, nettlesome candidate for anger-management classes was given a 10-minute misconduct penalty for cheap-shotting Varlamov like the little punk Avery is.

At the very end, Ovechkin and Backstrom leapt into each other at center ice, as if they were LeBron James and Boobie Gibson playing to the cameras in Cleveland. It so infuriated the Garden crowd that two beer bottles came flying onto the ice from the stands.

Sadly, that's called respect from the blue seats here.

The Capitals needed this game for their confidence more than anything.

Never mind the best player in hockey; the Rangers don't have a Nicklas Backstrom, an Alexander Semin or Mike Green on the ice. They have an otherworldly goalie in Henrik Lundqvist, an aging Markus Naslund, some nice players in Scott Gomez, Chris Drury, Ryan Callahan and Nikolai Zherdev and that's about it. Their goalie is their lone all-star.

The Capitals didn't want to come to New York and be steamrolled by this crowd and this motivated team that Tortorella has playing so purposefully.

They didn't want that label of regular season monster and playoff pretender to stick this year, a season in which they began to show the form of a real Cup contender.

"I didn't think we were gaining a reputation as a great regular season team and a bad playoff one," Steckel said. "We're a relatively young team with good leadership. We thought we played well for two games. A little adversity at the start of the series was tough. But I don't think anybody viewed that as, 'Here we go again.' "

Maybe not in their locker room, but three more wins are what it will take to push aside that perception for good.

Still, one down, three to go beats win or go home.

It's a series now, an ornery, nasty, hyper-competitive series -- just the kind of uncomfortable, first-round fight they need to embrace more tightly than their talent. And the only way to seize their promise.

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