For me, Saturday afternoon and evening finally delivered long elusive fun at being a hockey fan in Washington, at the very end of the regular season. For me, fun with hockey is when the present and near future offer promise. This hockey season, that didn’t arrive much before the 81st game of the season. My blogger chum Ed Frankovic late Saturday night summed it up perfectly for me: “For Washington, a mostly miserable regular season is finally over.”
Miserable it mostly was. It wasn’t just that the Capitals’ season fell far short of everyone’s expectations. For much of the past 5 years in D.C. the Caps have had foisted upon them the mighty weight of a lone sporting savior in a region of long losing blight. This season, expectations were at their absolute highest for hockey, and instead of glory we endured a lot of gory: the Florida Panthers edged out our icers for Southeast division supremacy. That about says it all, doesn’t it?
(Fingers crossed: may the Panthers’ be the final Southeast division championship banner raised in any rink.)
But worse than the unexpected mediocrity of the regular season was the disquieting existential dilemma it occasioned: for the first time in the Era of Ovechkin, there was widespread discussion of the need . . . to blow it all up. That perspective may yet prove to be true in two weeks’ time. “George [McPhee] is attempting to win a Cup in a way no one else ever has,” I heard a hockey figure of no small esteem reflect in mid-winter. But for about the next two weeks we needn’t worry about that. The beauty of the NHL postseason is that, unlike those of other sports, ours cultivates unlikely heroes, it’s a clarion call for a hot goaltender to right plenty of roster wrongs, it rewards a few lucky bounces in big ways, and sometimes, once in a while, it congeals a team room in ways that proved elusive from October through March.
Saturday night brought a concluding game of meaning but also a respite from season-long stress and sourness. Win, against Henrik Lunqvist and a full lineup of Blueshirts, and the Caps could perhaps send a modest message of being a moderately dangerous underdog peaking at the right time.
Saturday was sumptuous as a coming out party for a hockey blogger in hiding from blight and fright and the daunting possibility of having to chronicle, this offseason, a blowup. We had perfect grilling weather — indigo skies and a soothing to brisk breeze. Pens-Flyers hoped-for carnage was on the tube at 4:00. I grilled kebobs, drank a generous sum of beer, and wore a vintage Caps’ sweater while listening to John Walton’s call. Then the Caps ended things in Saturday night’s opening 20 minutes. I was fairly able to forget the previous 81 games, and thrill a bit in looking ahead.
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For about 5 years I’d worn Capitals’ ballcaps and t-shirts to gym workouts in fall and winter with a bit of a swagger. Not only did my guys win a good bit over that time, but they won with style, in sport-growing fashion. The Caps were very much a much-needed counterpart to the Redskins, Wizards, and Nats. (Until spring, of course.) But by about mid-December of this season I began wearing a Quebec Nordiques ballcap to the gym. In my puck allegiance I felt compelled to look ahead rather than meditate on a deeply troubling present. The sensible and enticing realignment news that broke in December seemed so much more positive a story than what was transpiring on the ice in D.C. The grand experiment undertaken by George McPhee seemed to be unraveling, rather thoroughly.
October delivered not only that remarkable 7-0 start to the Capitals’ season but premature snowflakes. Then, suddenly, winter and our winter sport’s progress came to a screeching halt. Watching, intermittently, underwhelming hockey in sunbelt temps, I felt denied winter and what was forecast for it.
Even the autumn arrival of the Legend behind the bench did little to remedy my big-picture dread. I still have doubts that Dale Hunter today has the sort of roster he’d truly like to contest an NHL postseason with, but again, we’re merely a hot Holtby away from having some fun with the sport that brought us so little of that the past six months.
And there’s this: Role Reversal. Instead of being the hunted, this spring our guys will hunt. We’ll see our guys perform relatively pressure-free. Maybe it won’t make any difference, maybe the defending champs will take us out in round one as everyone will forecast, but the new aura of underdog is fresh and novel, and it might just aid a skilled group that has known nothing but discomfort with the label of Expected Winner.
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Prosperity this spring likely will require unexpected, elevated efforts from Dale Hunter and Braden Holtby. Under Hunter the Caps have authored both their best and worst performances of the season. They’ve yet to string together a torrid stretch of terrific play. The power play still looks anemic. But there are some important improvements. Alexander Semin — previously believed more or less uncoachable — looks real good at both ends of the rink. Those weekly too many men on the ice penalties are also, mercifully, a thing of the past. Hunter’s Caps also don’t much make a parade to the penalty box; there is overall greater discipline to their play. In a lot of respects the Capitals under Dale Hunter have absorbed and are executing a lot of the game’s vital basics. It’s clear that under Hunter there is no magic bullet of system installation to confound the opposition. Instead, the Caps are asked to play it close to the vest, think defense first, be opportunistic, play it relatively ugly. In other words, the very brand of hockey that commonly characterizes the NHL postseason.
Interestingly, no one on the Capitals roster has opted out of the plan. Early on in the Hunter regime Roman Hamrlik seemed a casualty. Saturday night he was the Capitals’ best defender.
Braden Holtby is this postseason’s real wildcard. He is in the estimation of many the most talented netminder in the Capitals’ organization. A couple of years ago, well before any of the Caps’ young netminding prospects Neuvirth, Varlamov, or Holtby had distinguished themselves in pro hockey, I listened closely as Brett Leonhard fielded a tough question on a local radio program about them. Who would you least like to see dealt if there turns out to be a logjam of young talent between the pipes, Stretch was asked. He paused some seconds and replied, “Holtby.” I always thought Stretch his most thoughtful and interesting in discussing hockey’s most maddening and important position. I filed that answer of his away, confident then that Stretch would be proven right.
Holtby, in addition to prodigious physical talent, brings a swagger and a fiery competitiveness to the position that no one else does. As such, his teammates like playing in front of him very much. It would be a mistake I think to believe that the moment Michal Neuvirth is declared healed and fit that he mans the playoff pipes for the Caps. We’ve seen plenty of Neuvirth and Vokoun this season, and neither seized the position for playoff dependability. The guess here is that Holtby will get the nod for game 1 Thursday, and should he perform well, Neuvirth’s fitness will be a moot point. This sport has a rich legacy of precocious prodigies in net carrying playoff teams deep into spring. It’s nice at last to be excited to watch for it.