By Mike Wise
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
So many playoff games, so many seminal shifts -- so many momentous goals for Sergei Fedorov over the years. Couldn't the original Russian Rocket find it in him one more time? When he came here, all he wanted was a new lease on an old champion's life. Couldn't the only player on the Capitals to have his name engraved on the Stanley Cup turn back time, to a moment when he was Alex Ovechkin and all the possibilities of speed and deception were in front of him, just a laser of a shot away?
In this ever-maddening Game 7, in the middle of that recurring nightmare where the Capitals' players seem to be going in slow motion and the other guys somehow ruin the season with an implausible ricochet in front of the net -- when everyone on the ice looks old and tired -- they chanted the name of the ageless one.
"For all the years I played the game, I recognize the situation, I recognize that I can shoot the puck and it went through," he said, matter-of-factly. "And it was a big goal."
With 4 minutes 59 seconds left, Fedorov, the going-on-40 legend who hadn't scored a goal in 395 minutes of playoff hockey this April, froze Rangers defenseman Wade Redden with a hesitation move, waited for Henrik Lundqvist to drop to his knees, recoiled his stick and fired.
Glove side -- because he said his experience told him Lundqvist would go low.
When that puck pierced the net, from Verizon Center boomed a cacophonous roar unheard in this building since it opened more than a decade ago.
That shot from the right side -- that scintillating score -- seemed to come out of 1992, when he last ended a series in such pulsating fashion. He was not 39 and in the twilight of his career. Fedorov was merely a kid with the Detroit Red Wings, if you can call a 22-year-old who defected from the former Soviet Union and had played with Vladimir Konstantinov, Slava Kozlov, Vyacheslav Fetisov and Igor Larianov in Hockeytown, USA all those years ago a kid.
Remember, the Russian Five? How was Fedorov to know he would be part of another 17 years later?
"When you score a goal like that, does it make you feel young again?" he was asked.
"Certainly it brought some memories," Fedorov began, "certainly at this point it makes you excited and really passionate about what you do. And that's how I feel right now."
The old vet who sent this franchise to the second round is a Russian pioneer, whose courage to defect made it possible for Ovie and Viktor Kozlov and Alexander Semin and Simeon Varlamov to eventually play in the NHL (on a team in the nation's capital with more Russian players than any NHL team, no less).
"You can say that, I guess," he said, sheepishly, standing a few feet from the ice last night, a red beanie keeping his dishwater-blond mop intact. "I think I open up borders a little bit."
When he was brought here last February after not going to the postseason for four years, after 13 straight years of Cup runs in Detroit, everyone knew this could be Fedorov's last stop in the NHL.
From the Now-It-Can-Be-Told file: Fedorov said he hoped to come back next season, the idea being that management would never want to break up an outfit that won it all or came within a couple of games. When this was relayed to a person in management, the reply: "Sergei come back? Maybe for the parade."
When the same person was asked last night if Fedorov would return, he began nodding, yes, maybe more than the parade.
Okay, it's much too early this postseason to think they would re-invest in a player who will turn 40 in December, who missed 30 games this year due to injury or illness, who relies more on savvy and skill than the speed and power of his youth. But now Sergei Fedorov is a bona fide part of this era in Capitals history. Besides, he is related to the Caps' apparent good-luck charm.
"My brother Fedor was with us for last three games," Sergei said, alluding to Washington's three straight wins. "Now he's stuck with me. I can't let him go."
"Old Russian name, very old," Sergei said. "My grandfather was named like that. He went through three wars."
Sergei is basically saying that playing on the Red Army team in the 1980s or the Red Wings in the early 1990s or being a senior citizen on the rock-the-red Caps should not qualify him as a relic, a genuine old warrior. "My grandfather, he was something like in his 80s. He was older than even me."
Hey, when you wait as long as Ted Leonsis and some of his players did for this moment, age becomes relative, no?
For the owner, General Manager George McPhee, Ovechkin, Chris Clark, Brooks Laich, Matt Bradley and Shaone Morrisonn, going to the second round must have felt even more transcendent. Those players were all regulars in 2005-06, the year the Caps won 28 games and the great rebuild had begun.
They would not taste playoff hockey for four years, and to have it end so ingloriously a year ago on home ice -- the sudden finality of the Flyers' overtime win -- just made a Game 7 victory last night that much sweeter.
Before Fedorov's goal, let's be clear: they were headed down the same road again.
The Caps came out incredibly tight, as if they were about to blow a 3-1 series lead. The Rangers, meanwhile, were playing their muck-it-up-and-go-to-the-net game that worked so beautifully for them the first two games of the series.
Ovechkin and his teammates weren't about to lose to New York and Lundqvist; their conqueror for 40 minutes was stage fright. Ovie and his teammates were lost in the grandeur of Game 7, spectators to their own demise for much of the evening.
How could this happen two years in a row, five times in their history, in Game 7?
And then Feds happened. Then his countrymen happened.
The Russians were coming in that third period, all right -- all of them.
Outshot 14-11 the first 40 minutes, the Caps put 13 shots on goal the final 20 minutes. Eleven of those came from this Russian Five: Semin (five shots), Ovechkin (three), Fedorov (two, his only two of the game) and Kozlov (one).
When Fedorov finally broke the scoring drought with that laser from the last millennium, when Sergei's shot broke the Rangers' back, only two things were certain after the noise finally went away last night:
1) The Washington Capitals were going to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. And 2) someone was buying at Russia House, and it wasn't Sergei Fedorov.
"We're not going [to Russia House]. We have to stay disciplined," he said.
Spoken like a golden oldie, like a gracefully aging pro who knows when to rest, when to play and when to go high when the goalie goes low.