Saturday, May 2, 2009
"LAST YEAR is history. Now we make new history this year." Alex Ovechkin, star player for the Washington Capitals, may be self-conscious about his Russian-accented English, but he expressed better than anyone the enormous strides made by the city's hockey team and its hopes for the future. It is a future that we, along with thousands of red-shirted Caps fans, believe should include a Stanley Cup.
When the players face off this afternoon against the Pittsburgh Penguins to begin the second round of the NHL playoffs, it will be the first time since 1998 that the Capitals have gotten that far. And they did it the hard way, having come back from a 3-1 series deficit against the New York Rangers. Only 20 other teams in the league's history have ever done that. What was particularly impressive about the team's rally is how every player stepped up. Each victory had a different superstar -- from the improbable goaltending of 21-year-old Simeon Varlamov to the
series-winning score by 39-year-old Sergei
To some degree, that's a credit to owner Ted Leonsis, who learned the hard way that the best way to build a team is by collecting a group of young players and instilling confidence in them. Of course, getting lucky by being able to draft the 23-year-old Mr. Ovechkin helped. So, as The Post's Dan Steinberg catalogued in a report this season, a team that was once a metaphor for lack of fan support is riding a surge of excitement nearly unmatched in its 35-year history. Season-ticket sales are way up, and even those who think icing is something on a cake have been caught up in Caps fever. No doubt the lackluster performance of the area's other pro franchises has helped, but don't tell that to the sellout crowds that rock the Verizon Center.