By Mike Wise
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
Let's not sugarcoat it: Game 7 a year ago was a gut-punch, a direct shot to the Capitals' abdomen. The moment Joffrey Lupul put home a power-play rebound in overtime, the Flyers moved on to the second round, Ovie and the Overachievers went home and a sea of red was crestfallen, some fans pelting the ice with bottles and pizza boxes, behaving as badly as a bearded, diminutive New York coach with anger and control issues.
"Was hard, but I hope not going to happen [tonight]," Alex Ovechkin said yesterday, the day before he played his second Game 7 in two years, the second season in a row his team has bounced back from a three-games-to-one deficit in a first-round series.
Beware, Bruce Boudreau, of the general thought encircling this series: Your team is about to end the Rangers' season and complete their collapse. The thinking is, now that the Caps have found their ammunition cache and have kept firing at Henrik Lundqvist, now that Washington has outscored New York 14-5 the past four games, only Simeon Varlamov celebrating his 21st birthday with Lindsay Lohan or Andray Blatche last night can prevent this momentous Capital comeback.
When Rangers Coach John Tortorella (if Napoleon Bonaparte were alive today, by the way, he'd have a Tortsian complex) asked the New York media if any of them thought his team would win, not one reporter raised their hand.
See? Even Gotham likes Ovie's chances.
So all bodes well for the guys in red, no? Not exactly. They were here a year ago, against a team that had lost its confidence and its 3-1 series lead amid an Ovechkin onslaught. The Flyers still showed, hung around, checked hard in a no-harm, no-ambulance physical encounter and capitalized on a gift of a penalty at the end.
After Cristobal Huet lost the puck, looking left, and Lupul closed in for the kill on his right, no one wanted to hear about a tremendous contest, how the first Game 7 Washington had played at home since a Capital Centre loss to the Penguins in the 1992 Patrick Division semifinals lived up to all its pre-series hype. The dead quiet from almost 20,000 meant it was over, the dream delayed.
When the Caps face off tonight against the Rangers, they should remember that feeling more than the euphoria of Game 6 at Madison Square Garden, more than anything they've felt the past year. They should think back to that hollow, wrenching pierce in the heart, of that puck knocked in and themselves knocked out.
On the bench last April, Tomas Fleischmann winced. "Very hard to swallow," he said. Same with an injured Brian Pothier in the stands.
"Just heartbreaking," Pothier said. "You work so hard to dig yourselves out of a hole. Come so far. Not only the goal itself. But the way it happened. You felt like you almost got robbed."
Said Matt Bradley: "It's like all the good emotions you had last year turned bad. It's a terrible feeling. It's something none of us will forget from last year."
He stopped speaking for a moment and added, "We've come too far and worked too hard to let it happen again."
"It's like we almost get redemption at it," Jeff Schultz said.
Do-over opportunities don't often avail themselves this quickly -- gift-wrapped, ready to seize one year later, especially when it comes to Game 7s in this town. The last time the Wizards-Bullets franchise hosted a Game 7 was 1979.
In some ways, the Capitals have spoiled their legions by forcing two Game 7s in back-to-back years.
In both series, Ovechkin woke up offensively after a slow start, triggering a surge among his young-buck teammates that carried the Caps in Games 5 and 6. And both years the Flyers and Rangers seemed to perfect the el-foldo act, nearly cooperating with Gary Bettman and the rest of hockey-loving North America, who, let's be honest, have no use for teams with the incredible star power of Colton Orr in the conference semifinals.
(And I don't want to hear: "But Bettman is a New Yorker. Why, the first year he was commissioner the Rangers won the Cup. The league wants a New York team in there." No, it doesn't. It wants an eye-candy team that can sell paraphernalia and play human pinball. It wants Ovie and Greenie. It wants a "Slap Shot" extra for a coach and a very, very old-school Sergei Fedorov. That's good television, not Sean Avery's mom explaining that he wasn't always a hooligan.)
(Parenthetical thought No. 2: Then again, a six-game suspension for Donald Brashear? So as long as no one misses the rest of a series with an orbital detachment, Gary, cold-cocking a player is only worth a game? Meting out justice in the NHL has nothing to do with malicious intent anymore; it's all about how bad a guy got hurt, how bad it looked on TV and whether a player has openly criticized Bettman for his hypocrisy on the fighting issue, which, yes, Brashear has done. Another bang-up job by a follower who appropriately wears wool.)
Bottom line, Game 7 is there for the taking.
Varlamov, who has given up six goals in five games, believes he can do it. Puckheads outside of Greater Manhattan pray they can do it. And even most New Yorkers believe the Capitals will complete the Rangers' meltdown tonight at Verizon Center.
In life and sports, this is a chance to play revisionist historian, to erase the pain of the past before it digs in and gnaws another year. Boudreau should just tell his players to look heavenward, toward the Jumbotron, for the words of the late, great motivational speaker John Belushi: "What are we waiting for?!"
Said Bradley, speaking for a fan base and an organization yesterday, "If we don't do it, we have no one to blame but ourselves."