Last July 1 was the first day of free agency in the NHL. That day, the Washington Capitals made a quick, dramatic move. They signed a big-time free agent center in Robert Lang.
Over the years, the Capitals had bid unsuccessfully for marquee centers who could help them, especially in the playoffs. The likes of Brett Hull and Brendan Shanahan and Mark Messier and Jeremy Roenick and Pierre Turgeon all spurned the Capitals.
Not Lang. He came to Washington, happily.
Lang had his reasons. His former Pittsburgh teammate and fellow native of the Czech Republic, Jaromir Jagr, had preceded him. And, not to be overlooked, Capitals owner Ted Leonsis made a generous offer to Lang, $25 million for five years.
Once in Washington, Lang took some time to adjust -- not unlike Jagr. But Lang got hot at precisely the right time, down the stretch of the regular season when he tallied 17 points in the final 14 games. On Thursday, all the hopes that Lang raised among Washington hockey fans last summer blossomed gloriously on a spring evening deep in the South, as he led the Capitals to an efficient 3-0 victory to open a best-of-seven playoff series against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Not once but twice Lang hit the back of the net, beating Nikolai Khabibulin, who as a goaltender had no peer in the last six weeks of the NHL season. Lang's two goals proved too much for Tampa Bay to overcome in a game that showed dramatically, at least this night, the difference between a veteran team and a youthful one. Washington is much, much more seasoned, Lang being Game 1's Exhibit A, and, as quickly as he struck on his two shots, the Capitals had the critical opener in their grasp and were on their way to regaining the home-ice advantage they lost when the Lightning roared past to win the Southeast Division.
Lang's first goal was lucky, but it also was an example of a veteran being in the right place at the right time. Sixteen minutes into a scoreless game, with both teams jabbing each other as cautiously as boxers with clout, Mike Grier centered from the corner and Lang, taking a baseball swing of all things, connected and knocked the puck out of mid-air and past Khabibulin. Khabibulin swung and missed. What sport was this? Lang looked as if he were hitting a baseball over the fence.
"That's your national game," he said, with a hearty laugh, afterward. The smile on Lang's face as he skated to the bench after his stroke of fortune told not only how he felt but how the entire Capitals team did. Now, at last, after helping make misery for them for years while playing for the Penguins, he was one of them.
"Every time you start on the road and score the first goal, it's pretty nice, it sets the tone, everybody relaxes, you play a little bit easier," the 32-year-old center said. "Every now and then you get lucky, and you get a lucky bounce."
So many times in playoff games past, the Capitals have been victimized by a lucky bounce. But this time the bounce started the Lightning toward a position of necessity if not desperation, even though it's a best-of-seven; for sure, Tampa Bay needs a comeback victory in Game 2 at St. Pete Times Forum Saturday afternoon before the series shifts next week to Washington, where the Lightning has fared poorly.
The Lightning will have to find a way to relax. Its players appeared to press after Lang's first goal, and pressed more as its offensive frustration grew. With the clock winding down toward the final two minutes of the second period, Tampa Bay defenseman Jassen Cullimore made a weak pass. Dainius Zubrus stole the puck and found himself joined in a two-on-one with Lang, both bearing down on Khabibulin. Zubrus passed to Lang and his shot to the short side virtually clinched the outcome.
"They ended up scoring at opportune times, when they had a couple of chances," Lightning Coach John Tortorella said.
"You always like to think your experience counts for something," Capitals Coach Bruce Cassidy said.
Cassidy said Lang's first goal "sure gets us rolling." The second he simply called "a great play" by both Zubrus on his steal and pass, and by Lang. "He just freezes Khabibulin and picks the right spot. He can score goals. We've seen that. He's an offensive guy and he can finish."
It was a professional job turned in by the Capitals from beginning to end, and nothing Tampa Bay could do affected them. Tampa Bay came out hitting as hard as the Tampa Bay Bucs. Not expectedly, Pavel Kubina pressed Jagr to the boards as if he were an advertisement.
But the Capitals kept playing together in perfect harmony. Goaltender Olaf Kolzig, who is trying to play back to his playoff form of 1998 when the Capitals made it to the Stanley Cup finals, felt more and more comfortable as the game progressed. Lang's efforts were a big reason.
"Langer -- that's the way I saw him play for Pittsburgh," Kolzig said. "I'm glad he's on our side now."