A Midseason Moment Meriting Deep and Poignant Reflection

General Manager George McPhee met with media at Kettler Capitals late this week, in a bit of a State of the Capitals Union address. He shared significant reflections on notable topics, including the conspicuously terrific play of Capitals’ prospects at the recently completed World Junior Championships in Buffalo, the impact and atmosphere of the Winter Classic, and the Capitals’ involvement with HBO. But at one moment he was asked to reflect on watching himself on cable television when the HBO cameras honed in on his unique agony as a manager while he watched his team endure more than a half month without winning a hockey game, and in that moment with media McPhee referenced something remarkable.

What stood out to him most about that suffering was the genesis of the Capitals’ losing streak, specifically December 2nd’s game in Dallas. I wrote a file succinctly titled ‘Zebra-Screwed‘ the morning after that loss — in which a John Carlson game-tying tally in the game’s final 10 seconds was waved off, and it was a seminal moment in this Capitals’ season for the general manager.

“That game in Dallas where I felt the referees took the game away from us . . .  I remember telling Bruce [Boudreau], ‘This is how losing streaks start.’  It’s hard for players to react [to that kind of loss]. If they didn’t play well, they pull their socks up and play better the next game. But that was different. You feel like in some ways you were robbed.”

Of that robbery I wrote, “The most egregious and insufferable shortcoming with hockey’s officiating occurs when a zebra makes a judgment call, through a maze of bodies, that undoes late-game heroism. It’s a moment when an official, rather than world-class athlete(s), determines a game. We fans pay good money to see special athletes thrill us, occasionally surmounting enormous obstacle and odds to triumph. Their doing so affords us sports’ most indelible images.”

If McPhee’s right about the extraordinary impact that judgment call in Dallas had on his team — and I think he is — Dan O’Rourke did far more than cost the Capitals a hockey game. He damn near cost a good man [Bruce Boudreau] his job. That was the heart of McPhee’s reflection: an isolated loss due to deficient performance is part and parcel of athletics, from which athletes bounce back in a reasonable amount of time, but the psyche of the elite competitor can’t reconcile as well excellent effort, culminating with heroism, that is overturned by error. Sometimes we hate referees for good reason.

* * * * *

McPhee called the Winter Classic “maybe the most fun I’ve had as a manager, and maybe the most fun I’ve ever had in my life.”

“It was sort of a ‘Field of Dreams’ thing.”

On the Red Out of Pittsburgh last weekend: “Even on the ride home to Washington on Sunday, I drove my family back, it was Caps’ fans all the way back, at toll booths, the gas stations, restaurants . . . Every time you turned the corner in Pittsburgh someone was wearing a Caps’ jersey. I think the popularity [of the Caps] is unprecedented.”

* * * * *

The Capitals this season are getting quality contributions from a half dozen rookie performers. The World Juniors in Buffalo (which apparently was annexed by Canada late in 2010) sent this message to Caps’ fans: Ready yourself for another wave of impact youth.

Ron Wilson was mightily impressed by Capitals’ center prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov, and so was McPhee. In fact, McPhee liked an awful lot of what he saw from a bevy of Caps’ prospects in Buffalo over the holidays.

Kuznetsov was “one of the best players [of the WJC], and [Cody] Eakin was the best player on the ice” in the gold medal game, the Caps’ GM said.

“It sure is nice as a manager to go to a tournament and see talent like that. Especially where we’ve been picking [in the Entry Draft]. We’re gonna have another wave of good players coming to the team.” Reporters asked McPhee about the preponderance of centers in the Capitals’ development pipeline. He acknowledged that, but he also pointed out that the transition from center to wing is not a difficult one, whereas most wings cannot effectively move to the pivot. And so we should expect to see one or two young centers make the move. Eakin for instance has blazing speed that could be effective outside. McPhee expects Eakin to go straight to Hershey once his junior season is completed. The Bears are heating up, and Eakin will be a special reinforcement.

* * * * *

The Americans at these World Juniors played only one poor game, but it was when they could least afford to — in the semifinals against a revenge-minded Canada. Still, they won bronze, earning their first-ever World Juniors medal on home ice and winning consecutive medals in this tournament for the first time ever. The signs of lasting American emergence in international play are everywhere, and the 2011 World Juniors offered additional evidence of it. The Yanks were legitimate gold medal contenders. Favorites, actually.

Think back just to last February and Vancouver, and the near universal sentiment going in that the American Olympic entry, laden with youth and inexperience, was a likely 4th or 5th place finish outfit. The Americans got great goaltending from Ryan Miller, but they also got beyond-their-years play from young rearguards — Erik Johnson especially. That silver medal showing in Vancouver justifiably led to some gold medal game forecasts for the Americans in the Sochi games. These last two World Junior American clubs are likely to feed notable talent to that team. Both John Carlson and Cam Fowler are viable Calder candidates, for instance. We might even see a Californian or two on that Olympic team, and down the road a bit, maybe a Washington young gun who made the trip to Pittsburgh with his father last weekend for the Winter Classic.

This entry was posted in Cody Eakin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, George McPhee, HBO's 24/7, Morning cup-a-joe, National Hockey League, Prospects, USA Hockey, Washington Capitals, Washington the hockey town, Winter Classic 2011, World Junior Championships. Bookmark the permalink.

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