The Capitals may or may not go on to enjoy a prosperous and lengthy run in the 2011 NHL postseason. This morning, all we know for sure is that things are a heck of a lot better in late April 2011 than they were in late April of 2010. What’s certain however is that no matter their fate from here on out the Capitals’ postseason past remains a ghost story that’s grist for the fans of our rivals, and at some point some antagonist from Philadelphia or Pittsburgh or New York will remind you of those failures.
And when he does, you ought to nod your head in acknowledgment and then tell him the story of April 23, 2011. Tell your antagonist that with about six minutes to go in the first period of game 5 against the New York Rangers then, with the Capitals clinging to a 1-0 lead in an elimination game, Mike Green, the claimant to two significant head injuries in the season’s second half, ones that robbed him of duty for 26 of the Capitals’ final 28 regular season games, instinctively slid down on the ice in the slot in front of his goaltender to block a Matt Gilroy slapshot.
With his skull.
What followed were moments of nauseating uncertainty, and the afternoon’s singular silence among the 18,000 in Verizon Center was testament to it. The NBC telecast was able to pinpoint multiple screws being dislodged from Green’s helmet as he lay stricken on the ice. Fortunately, he was up and off the ice on his own in reasonably short order, and ultimately returned to his teammates on the bench, though not for additional playing time. Bruce Boudreau noted in the postgame that had his team lost more rearguards or had circumstances otherwise dictated, he could and would have used Green. Still, Boudreau said in a much needed moment of light-heartedness, “I wish he’d get the magnets out of his helmet.”
The most predictable news in the postgame of yesterday’s 3-1 series-ending triumph over the Rangers was word of Mike Green being awarded the hardhat for his stunningly selfless commitment. The Stanley Cup playoffs boast a rich legacy of moments of harrowing sacrifice like Greener’s yesterday. Sports’ ultimate prize requires it. In a few weeks’ time we may look back on Saturday and identify it as a turning moment in the underwhelming legacy of this franchise in spring.
For Capitals’ fans, Green’s unfathomable courage ought to go a long way to absolving both this individual player’s perceived springtime shortcomings but also those of his team as well. Yesterday afternoon a very special new chapter in the Capitals’ playoff legacy was written, and it truly ought to recast the overall narrative. Tell your antagonists when next they vex you with past scoreboard failings of spring that this color and crest you support is distinctive, and eminently worthy of ardent patronage. Mike Green made it so yesterday.
* * * * *
Yesterday represented a landmark moment for the core who wear this crest. For the first time in the Era of Ovechkin, a Capitals’ team won a playoff series in fewer than seven games. As a franchise the Caps hadn’t won a playoff series in fewer than seven games in the 21st century — you have to go all the way back to the great run of ’98 to find one.
It’s almost an imperative for a team with Glory aspirations to make reasonably efficient work of their first-round opponent. The rigor of the NHL postseason exacts too much a toll to make seven-game stops a habit series after series. In addition to Green’s scare yesterday the Capitals briefly lost the services of Jason Arnott. During the second intermission media voice after media shared with me the conviction that the ensuing 20 minutes needed to be the series’ last. Almost certainly we know only a fraction of the Capitals’ full tally of significant physical ailments this spring. The Philadelphia Flyers later today may begin wondering what a healthy Chris Pronger might have meant in their series with the Sabres. Anyway, both psychologically and physically this pause in play is of paramount importance to this hockey club.
* * * * *
Rather regularly OFB readers share with us poignant reflection. “Now have a positive playoff memory on the Saturday before Easter. (I remember when history was made),” one noted in comment last night.
* * * * *
Yesterday’s outcome was every bit as important for Washington’s hockey fans as it was for Capitals’ players. It was important for our town. To state the obvious, this hockey club is the only winning game in town. The Era of Ovechkin was moving along and progressing largely as it was forecast to when it hit a devastating speedbump last April. That failure last spring ushered in an identity crisis on the ice but it also — and this has been little remarked upon I think — eroded a bit of the optimism that fans new and old here had harbored with Ovi’s arrival. I really believe that that masterful March trade deadline work by George McPhee impacted the fanbase as much as his team.
Another indelible image from Saturday: with about 3 minutes remaining and the outcome certain, in-house cameras panned in on owner Leonsis in his box standing beside his son Zach, both outfitted in red Capitals’ sweaters. The owner recognized the moment and blew a kiss out to the madly devoted, who responded with fresh frenzy. To state the obvious, you won’t find that happening any time soon out at FedEx Field.
Comcast Sportsnet’s Jill Sorenson last night told me that on her route into Chinatown yesterday she found herself in a caravan of cacophonous support for the Caps. Car horns, she reported, were made into a melodic symphony of ‘C-A-P-S Caps!Caps!Caps!,’ with drivers with rolled down windows shouting the chant as accompaniment. We are louder also on our streetways, you see.
I began sensing something special enveloping our community with this team even before Jason Chimera took Manhattan on Wednesday night. The front pages of our newspapers were profiling hockey and chronicling it with uplifting photojournalism. Radio programs in their two- or three-hour entirety are being devoted to the Caps this spring (thank you, Danny Rouhier and 106.7). I’ve even shared my sense that by virtue of the breadth and passion of enlarged media here there is a swelling of civic pride for our Caps that outpaces — out-shrieks in its car horn frenzy — the great run of ’98.
“Washington is a hockey town,” Sorenson told me last night. She’s right, and we deserve a celebration of it with hockey in May.