Thirty minutes before game 7 I said to a circle of new media mates high up in Verizon Center that my gut was telling me that the dam may well burst, that so much of the preceding hockey in this series had been of the excruciatingly close variety, that simply the law of averages suggested that the series was due a lopsided and lousy lemon. You just don’t get seven consecutive classic games, no matter how evenly matched the teams. I didn’t have a sense as to which side would burst through the stalemate, just that a sort of mental fatigue combined perhaps with an unlucky break or three would settle in on one unfortunate side, they’d never recover, and we’d witness a drama-less conclusion to a city-transforming series.
The better team won Wednesday night, and they were more than one-night-better in this series. They were upwards of 75 shots to the better better, dominant and tempo-dictating in their forecheck, disciplined, crisp with their passes and confident in their breakouts, and positively deserving of their title as defending conference champions. This series proved rather perfectly that the Penguins are a year ahead of the Capitals in competitiveness.
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There is something more than disconcerting about the Capitals’ starts to games, dating back really all the way to the end of winter. During the first intermission Mike Vogel pointed out to me that way back when the Caps raced out to 18 wins in their first 20 home games this season, often they jumped out ahead of the competition early on, often drawing penalties and capitalizing on the power plays and skating proverbially downhill thereafter. Those fast starts rather suddenly stopped, and not long after, so did all the winning at home.
In the first periods of games 6 and 7, the Caps were outshot 34-10 by Pittsburgh. Those were elimination games of course, and in both instances the Caps were flat and unprepared to compete at puck-drop. Why? That question had better be addressed this offseason.
There was an NHL coach I believe whose name escapes me who recently suggested that once the Caps learn how to win they’ll be a most formidable foe. They haven’t and aren’t; Pittsburgh has and is. That I think was the principal difference Wednesday night and in this series.
This Capitals’ team finished one victory shy of the Eastern conference finals. That strikes me as being just about right relative to the projections for the club dating back to training camp, and with what we saw exposed at times in the regular season and especially in this series. This team I don’t think under- or over-achieved. The experience of this postseason most certainly will aid the team’s core in the postseasons of the future, but there are reasonably significant changes that must be made. Among them: addressing the unhealthy discrepancy in production on the right side up front, and adding some much needed “sandpaper” on the blueline.
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No reasonable person would scapegoat Simeon Varlamov for the game 7 implosion. This was Varlamov’s very first season of professional hockey in North America. He was expected to need at least a full season’s seasoning in the American League before possibly earning mere backup minutes in D.C. Injuries in Hershey this season limited him to fewer than 30 starts — it wasn’t quite a washout campaign, but it wasn’t anywhere near what Capitals’ management hoped for in terms of experience. But then consider where he found himself in mid-April: merely trying to salvage the Capitals’ season, one suddenly threatening to end before it really got started. It’s astounding to think that Varlamov was one victory shy of leading the Caps into hockey’s final four.
“I do believe the Washington Capitals will win a Stanley Cup soon, and one of the reasons is Simeon Varlamov,” Comcast’s Joe Beninati said in the postgame last night.
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Given the thoroughly underwhelming showing in this series by Mike Green and Alexander Semin, it’s a wonder it even made it to seven games. Later this week we’ll learn of injuries for both, likely significant for each. They are impact players when reasonably healthy, and neither had an impact on this series. That’s not accidental.
The player who most had an impact on the series was Sidney Crosby. I was one who tossed darts and daggers his way in his first three seasons in the league. I didn’t think he was much of a leader, and he struck me as being a second-tier goal-scoring threat. This spring, and especially in this series, he announced himself great in both respects. He has obliterated talk of being the “second-best Pen” or in any way unworthy of representing the NHL and all it should stand for. I was awestruck by his dominance down low. He really didn’t showcase much his brilliant passing — he was too busy scoring goals. The Caps would do well, beginning this summer, to address the conspicuous dearth of piss-n-vinegar brutes on the blueline who might dislodge Crosby from the comforts he enjoyed all around Varlamov’s crease the past two weeks.
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I consumed a great deal of media the past two weeks about this series and its stars, and the most memorable snippet for me stood out in a mere two lines of a USA Today essay on the two young greats:
“Ovechkin, who also earned $9 million but is signed through 2021, dyed his hair red for the playoffs and persuaded teammates Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom to do the same. He is seen around town driving a Mercedes with Capitals car flags on both sides.”
Alexander Ovechkin is so much more than just a dynamic hockey talent almost single-handedly ushering in an era of unfathomable prosperity for a franchise perhaps just 5 or so years removed from talk of being a relocation candidate. He is something we have never seen a Washington sports star be: he is an ambassador-fan for his franchise, a proud showcaser of its crest, even as he drives his car about the city. Meaning no disrespect to Joe Theismann or Wes Unseld or any other Washington sports legend, but do you recall any of them blinging their team affiliation with such infectious, endearing, fan-ish enthusiasm?
Maybe way back in 2004 when in his very broken English Ovi first muttered something about making Washington a hockey town we all thought he was just talking the good-sounding talk. This offseason, however, while rudely and crudely foisted upon us, we know differently.
It will be some weeks still before Ovi heads home to Moscow, vacations a bit and then begins his grueling training regimen to better his career. During that time, if you happen to be standing at a D.C. street corner as Ovi passes, his red Caps’ flags fluttering wildly in the summer sun, wave and blow a kiss at this wunderkid, or honk your horn if you’re behind him and pump a fist out your window. He’s one of us, and aren’t we damned lucky for it.