With a Gutsy Win, the Capitals Take a Big Step Forward in the Cauldron of Playoff Pressure

By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Was that the sound of 18,277 people screaming in Verizon Center? Or were they just letting out their breath?

When the Capitals' devoted but desperate fans finally stopped holding their breath last night, when the seventh and final excruciating game against the New York Rangers was finally over and Washington had won, 2-1, all their pent-up tension, hope, frustration and pride burst forth in a sound like an erupting jet engine -- as heard from the inside.

They yelled. They stuck out every red-clad chest. They watched the Caps encircle and embrace Simeon Varlamov, one day past his 21st birthday, the man who literally saved their postseason, allowing just seven goals in his six games. And they roared for old Sergei Fedorov, the veteran who beat Henrik Lundqvist for the game-winning goal with just 4 minutes 59 seconds left in the third period. And, yes, Fedorov realized, of course, that the place to beat King Henrik was over his left shoulder, the weakness that the Caps have preyed upon throughout their comeback from a three-games-to-one deficit.

So, inhale, exhale. The Rangers' gloves are no longer around the throats of Alex Ovechkin, Mike Green, Alexander Semin and the rest of the Caps' youthful corps. Now, they can continue to pursue their hockey destiny without unnecessary demons. For the first time in 21 years, a Washington pro team had won a Game 7, the most magical yet diabolical pair of words in sports. Even more important, the Caps' grand project of building a true champion, not a pretender or some annual April disappointment, stayed on track. A season that might have ended in exhaustive blame-analysis can now continue.

What the Caps have built so far -- the 108-point season, the best ever for this franchise -- still stands. And the construction can continue in the next round against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Now bring on Sidney Crosby, the darling of NHL marketing who looks like James Bond, so he can face the Great Eight, the Capital who looks like everybody who was ever sent to kill Agent 007.

My, my, this business of making progress, of not taking a gigantic step backward -- it was a narrow thing.

"We've had two excellent building seasons," General Manager George McPhee said. "But you have to do something in the playoffs to have it make any sense.

"You just have to win in the playoffs," said McPhee, the image still fresh in mind of how close his team came to being knocked out in the first round for the second straight season with a Game 7 on its home ice. "We played extremely well throughout this whole series -- except for the first two periods tonight. All of a sudden, all of the things we didn't do right in two periods goes away. All of it goes away."

For those most central to the Caps, this was not nearly as much a victory as it was an escape from defeat -- a loss that would have forced every aspect of the Caps operation to be reexamined from inside and out. The Caps' three one-sided wins -- by 10 goals -- would have been forgotten. Not now. Now, it's the Pens, not postseason penitentiary.

No face in the Caps locker room exuded relief more than Ovechkin, who tried to speak, but was totally tongue-tied between his native Russian and English. "I'm confused in Russian, too," he muttered, laughing at himself. "After Sergei scored, my emotions went right over the top. It's just very emotional in here right now. Last year is history. Now we make new history this year."

Every Cap understood the indignity, bordering on hockey mortification that they faced if, after all the praise heaped on them, they lost to a low-scoring seventh-seed with an exceptional and hot goalie. "This is huge," Green said. "We worked so hard the last two years. To be put back in the same place -- that is not a good building block. If you don't win this game, you are taking steps backward."

Instead, it's still forward march, behind the fuzzy-cheeked, poised Varlamov, who said: "Of course I heard the fans yelling really loud. I could feel that. The pressure is not really something new for me. We have that back in Russia."

"I don't want to talk about him," the superstitious Ovechkin said of his fellow Russian, looking over at Varlamov still wiping a celebratory cream pie off his face.

But Green would. "He's been the difference in this series. It's changed the atmosphere of our team," he said. "His consistency in every game -- it's incredible at his age." Does the arrival of Varlamov even raise the Caps estimate of how quickly they may rise in the hockey world, now that first-round choking is behind them? And with the NHL's best regular season team, San Jose, already knocked out?

"Yes," Green said. "But I wasn't sure we'd won [this game] until there was five seconds left. It was kind of surreal to come back from three games to one. We almost did it last year against the Flyers."

Now they have. One huge hurdle surmounted. And a 21-year-old goalie discovered, thanks to Coach Bruce Boudreau's decision to switch from inconsistent veteran José Theodore after a 4-3 loss in Game 1 that included two soft goals. "We both agreed on the decision," McPhee said. "But it took some guts" by Boudreau.

The former career minor leaguer, and extra from the movie "Slap Shot," has risen, rather than sunk, in the eyes of his young team. "Every time he tells us what to do between periods, it seems to work," Green said.

This time, the Caps primarily had to realize that the Rangers tried to storm them early, using all their energy in the first two periods to build a lead. Simply by clinging to that 1-1 tie, based on a semi-lucky deflected goal by Semin, the Caps had far more fuel left for the final period.

Powerful young franchises do not inherit their futures like a birthright. They have to earn it the old-fashioned way -- in the face of failure. Nothing but fire forms steel, though when the heat is hottest, as it was in the 1-1 third period, few athletes enjoy the lesson.

Now, the Caps have escaped. But it was close. As they left the ice after the second period, some in the crowd actually booed, and almost none cheered.

"You don't expect that. But maybe that comes with expectations and being a popular team," McPhee said. "I hope it doesn't happen again. We've always had such a classy crowd."

Fans, and teams themselves, have limits to their patience. A second straight loss in a Game 7 at home would have tried the limits of that patience in every part of the Caps' culture. Now, there are only cheers for heroes and forgetfulness for sins that were not quite committed.

The Capitals are not a great team yet. But they just took an enormous step. Forward.

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