Now the Circus Comes to Town

By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Stanley Cup finals won't begin for more than a month, but the main event is now. Capitals vs. Penguins, Ovechkin vs. Crosby. It's the series -- the best thing to happen to the NHL since the bloody Detroit-Colorado skirmishes in the late '90s and early oughts. Nothing that happens afterward will sizzle as much, nothing will attract the attention or have such rich subplots.

After his team wrestled Game 7 from the New York Rangers to advance to the second round, Coach Bruce Boudreau was asked about "the circus" atmosphere surrounding the last three games of the series. Boudreau, who had just gotten word that Carolina had beaten New Jersey to set up Capitals-Penguins, smiled knowingly and said: "This wasn't a circus. . . . It wasn't Ringling Bros. Now, we're playing Pittsburgh. Welcome to the circus."

So many times coaches are too buried in the details of their own mission that they fail to see (or don't want to admit) the importance of a specific game or series to the health of a league. Boudreau wasn't goofing around with any of that subterfuge.

"Great for hockey. Great for TV, too," is Boudreau's assessment going in. Why else do you think the NHL has delayed the start of this series until Saturday?

Okay, this isn't Celtics-Lakers or even Yankees-Red Sox. The NHL has better teams in this postseason, probably Boston in the East and Detroit in the West. But the Capitals and Penguins have, arguably, five of the game's top 20 players, and very possibly the top three: Washington's Alex Ovechkin and Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

In fact, when the NHL announced the three finalists for the Hart Trophy as league MVP yesterday, Ovechkin and Malkin were on this list, along with Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk. That's a Russian sweep. Don Cherry, as my dear friend Charles Barkley would say, must be rolling over in his grave. The only thing Cherry hates more than those soft, visor-wearing, wine-sipping French Canadians is Russians.

Cherry, the cantankerous, antagonistic face of "Hockey Night in Canada" and the denouncer of most things not Canadian, must be leading the cheers for the Penguins because Pittsburgh is perceived as Crosby's team, even though Malkin is quite possibly a better player. Crosby is the Tom Brady of Canada, the Golden Boy since he was 12, a national curiosity since 14. Don't get me wrong, Crosby has lived up to incredible expectations. He's a complete player, just without the crowd-pleasing instincts of Ovechkin and Malkin. Whatever Crosby lacks in flair, he more than makes up for in productivity, which pleases the easily offended purists to no end.

Malkin lacks nothing. He's a hybrid monster, a great playmaker who can score, has a great shot and goes to the net with abandon. And, unlike Ovechkin, Malkin plays center. And while the Capitals have to contend with both Malkin and Crosby, the Penguins have to somehow handle Ovechkin, who along with being the likely MVP made some significant adjustments during the Rangers series, and Mike Green, the leading scorer among defensemen, and Nicklas Backstrom.

It's a stunningly talented group of players for one series, each of them young and still evolving. And in the middle of it we find Crosby and Ovechkin, not yet combatants but perhaps moving in that direction. The league should hope so. Last we saw them on the ice together, the two were trash-talking each other, bumping along the boards.

There's nothing quite like a rivalry where the lines are clearly drawn. Folks with an appreciation for showmanship identify with Ovechkin, with his celebrations and exultations. Those who revel in the notion of "tradition" and play their cards a little closer to the vest not only love Crosby, but tend to express a real distaste for Ovechkin. It's wonderful, really.

On top of that, you've got back story. These two franchises have played seven times in the playoffs, and the Penguins have won six of the series. The Capitals would call it a rivalry, but the Penguins must figure the Caps are like a mosquito that keeps showing up at a certain time every year.

Luckily, these Capitals aren't dragging around all the baggage from the losses to Pittsburgh over the years. Owner Ted Leonsis, after Tuesday's Game 7, pointed out that the Capitals entered the season with some very specific goals:

Make the playoffs (check).

Win the division (check).

Have the best regular season in franchise history (check).

Win first-round series (check).

Sell out every playoff game (check).

"You know me and my lists," Leonsis said. "There's one thing left on it. Win the Stanley Cup."

Asked about the significance of winning the series, General Manager George McPhee said, "You can't just have good regular seasons and not win in the playoffs."

The Capitals had to fight through what appeared to be some old-fashioned nerves the first two periods of Game 7 before swarming the Rangers in the third. Ovechkin's evolution was evident as well. McPhee said: "You have to be able to adapt and adjust in the playoffs. I think [Ovechkin] learned in this series. I think it kicked in for him. . . . You have to learn to dump it in sometimes. . . . You can't go one-on-one all the time. Sometime you have to get it in deep, go get it, outwork the other guy."

It's an appealing team on many fronts, from the talent level to the age range. The Capitals wouldn't be next up for the Penguins if not for 21-year-old rookie goaltender Simeon Varlamov, who prevented the Capitals from falling behind, say, 3-1, which is what the score should have been after one period. But they also couldn't have won without 39-year-old Sergei Fedorov, who won the game with his third-period goal. Leonsis teased Fedorov about the highlights in his hair, and Fedorov told him, "I highlight my hair to fool myself into thinking I'm younger."

For perhaps the first time in the franchise's history, the Capitals don't have to wish to be anyone else. They don't have to covet anyone else's player, another team's goaltender. They don't need to be enhanced or highlighted. They're fine just as they are, and ready to take on a team that went to the Stanley Cup finals a year ago and surely must feel the same. The beneficiary of all this is anyone who likes professional hockey at its best.

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