Washington Capitals find themselves flying high, in rare air
The Pittsburgh Penguins came to Washington with a deeper appreciation of the Capitals, and the danger they posed to the defending Stanley Cup champions, than perhaps anyone in hockey.
"These guys have been top of the league all year by a wide stretch," said veteran Bill Guerin. "They've had a great year, so we're definitely looking at them to see how we measure up."
The Pens, mind you, are the reigning NHL kings. The Pens, also, are the franchise that has cursed the Caps, had their number in the playoffs, for a generation. If any team shouldn't have to worry about how they "measure up" to the Capitals, it's the Pens, even though Washington won their first two meetings this year.
Yet the Pens do fret. And more so now after the Caps won their third straight meeting over Pittsburgh, 4-3, on a shootout goal by Mike Knuble. Once again, this season seems different for the Caps and that sense seems to grow every month. The first time the Caps met the Pens, they stomped them, 6-3, on the road. Then, on Super Bowl Sunday, they trailed 4-1, but won in overtime on Knuble's goal after Alex Ovechkin had a hat trick.
Now this: The Caps trailed 2-1 in the third period, but tied the score on a spectacular takeaway and end-to-end short-handed rush and goal by Alexander Semin. Less than two minutes later, the Caps took the lead with one of their trademark multigoal blitzes as Eric Fehr's deflection put them ahead.
Yet, when the Pens sent the game into overtime with just 3 minutes 4 seconds left in regulation, then took a 2-0 lead in the shootout -- an almost certain defeat. The Caps showed no hint of demoralization and finished the night with consecutive saves by José Theodore and three straight goals by Ovechkin, Semin and the flashless vet Knuble.
Make no mistake, this meeting meant more to the Pens, though they had to play without injured Sergei Gonchar and Evgeni Malkin, than it did for the Caps. It was the Pens who needed to create a bit of doubt. Instead, they left with a tad more of their own.
This night was yet another in a sequence of wakeup calls for the whole NHL. The Caps are on the verge of remarkable things -- deeds that are within their current capacity, not parts of some future dream. With excellence comes expectation and pressure. It can't be escaped.
Now, in just a few weeks, it will arrive, because the Caps themselves have arrived, not as contenders but as a power. The Power? The next several weeks, or months, will decide that.
"It's a lot of pressure to have the best record in the league," said Coach Bruce Boudreau, whose team will almost certainly have that distinction, riding as it is on a current pace of 121 points.
Only seven of 23 Presidents' Trophy winners have won the Cup. The regular season means a lot -- if you go on and win.
Rarely does a young team rise to the top of its sport so fast that it leaves almost everyone, except those on the squad itself, gasping in the wake of their accomplishments. But, at this moment, the Capitals keep their followers dashing to catch up with their constantly accelerating prowess.