In the early 1980s, as the Washington Capitals matured from doormat to strong Patrick division challenger to the dynastic Islanders, it wasn’t uncommon for them to skate in dominant fashion against established and elite teams and come up short. I thought about those Capitals’ teams on Tuesday night, as the 2010 Capitals, the East’s elite, skated uphill all night against the perennially 100-plus-point, Cup-contending Detroit Red Wings, and yet prevailed. Kicking off the most appealing slate of games this hockey season, Tuesday night’s high-profile hockey game delivered the takeaway theme that today’s Caps are so strong a club today that they can be dominated at home by hockey royalty and still win.
Times have changed indeed.
It was a game the Caps almost certainly should not have won, and would not have won, absent the stand-on-his-head heroics of Jose Theodore. Journeymen netminders in New York and New Jersey and Pittsburgh took down terrific Capitals’ clubs of a quarter century ago. On Tuesday night, a journeyman netminder wearing red, white, and blue took down the Wings.
A few patrons at Verizon Center last night likely were taking in their first hockey game of the season — marquee games have a way of attracting such newcomers — and all of them could have been forgiven for believing that the visitors from Detroit were the first-place team in their conference while the host Capitals were in 9th and fighting for their postseason lives.
Such was the Red Wings’ dominance: literally, a doubling by the Wings of the Caps in terms of shots on goal (46 to 23). The Wings skated through and around four Capitals’ defenders during five power plays on the night, Theodore and the Caps somehow managing to keep them off the board during all five.
“It was like men versus boys,” Bruce Boudreau said afterward. “I don’t think we touched the puck. They came out with a vengeance, and I’m sitting there thinking this is what Stanley Cup champions that are desperate do.
“And it’s a bar that we have to get to. We were just fortunate our goalie was great in the first period.”
All season long Bruce Boudreau has referenced the importance he believes the frenzied, sold out Verizon Center crowd plays for his team. Tuesday night’s Red Army was playoff loud. From the second period on I couldn’t hear the OFB intern seated next to me. It was a beyond impressive atmosphere to showcase for the healthy number of Hockeytown supporters seated within it. They may not yet believe there’s a second Hockeytown in this league, but they surely recognize that there’s more to this town than the Redskins.
It was also an eyebrow-raising atmosphere to showcase for the season’s first all-media-personalities-in-the-press-box showing since opening night. Channel 7 showed, Channel 5 showed, even a Washington Post columnist showed!
Hearing the battling cheers between the two team’s faithful was rousing and raucous and well simulated a playoff game’s atmosphere, and it really highlighted just how far the Washington hockey community has come. D.C. has truly fallen in love with these Capitals, and the Red Army shows it night in and night out and, and on nights like Tuesday, it transformed a hockey game into a heavy metal concert.
Victory Tuesday night was made possible by Jose Theodore principally but also a first period knotted at zero after a 15-3 frenzy of shots dominance by the guests. The Capital then could get to the first intermission locker room, regroup, and feel like bank robbers who eluded law enforcement.
After Detroit struck first on a Dan Cleary tally the clock wound down toward a worrisome second intermission deficit. The Capitals then needed heroism to counter Detroit’s desperation and dominance, and they got it from a star-and-grinder combination. A gorgeous Mike Green spring pass across the ice, hard and flat and accurate, to Boyd Gordon, who deftly directed an on-the-tape saucer centering pass to a driving-to-the-net Matt Bradley, tied the game, turning around its fortunes.
“I think we were resilient,” Gabby noted. “We could’ve given up a few times. We also need to know that we need to play much better if we want to win the whole thing. That team played like I hope they played the seventh game of the playoffs, because if they can play a lot better, then we’re in trouble. I thought that was the best team we played all year, and I’m shocked that they’re in ninth place right now.”
An Alexander Semin brain lapse high in his own zone led to a turnover and a Brian Rafalski blast between Jose Theodore’s pads with just over 8 minutes remaining. It appeared as if established hockey royalty would rule the night.
But a new king of centers, Nicklas Backstrom, went on a one-man, defender shredding, magic stick mission on a power play, besting Chris Osgood, tying the game, and reigniting sonic bedlam. Then it sounded like a game 7.
The Capitals on Tuesday night didn’t make many terrific plays, but they made them when they needed to. Less than a minute after Backstrom’s score-evening strike Dave Steckel redirected an Alex Semin shot past Osgood to give the hosts their first lead of the night, late. They needed only to hold on, and Jose Theodore made sure they did.
“It very easily could have been 6-0 after the first period,” Boudreau acknowledged.
It was a night for fourth-line heroism and the last line of defense. It was a night for Washington media to witness first-hand that special evenings in hockey take place in the regular season as well. And it was a night for visiting royalty to reckon with an upstart outfit now capable of winning even when it shouldn’t.