Of the NHL’s 30 member clubs merely five remain alive in the quest for Stanley, and one of them is ours. That’s a remarkable and wonderful thing, relative to the Capitals’ standing of just two months ago, but better still is the manner in which they’ve arrived at this competitive precipice: all the red-sweatered-wearers are buying into the system and creed and demeanor of their new coach, one of supreme sacrifice, supreme focus, and cohesion. One that works quite well in spring.
Remember not so long ago when we evaluated Alexander Semin’s worthiness on a night by whether or not he appeared on the productive side of the scoresheet? Most nights this spring he hasn’t, and yet he’s carried off one of the more valuable roles for the prospering Caps this spring. He doesn’t loaf, he doesn’t attempt to beat the opposition all by himself, he plays with discipline and determination, he reads with radar precision openings in offensive zone gaps then seizes them, he competes ferociously along the boards. Just like his teammates.
Cynics are suggesting that the Capitals’ cumulative ledger of 7-6 this postseason, and incredibly, 28 goals scored and 28 goals surrendered, undermines any claim to special distinction. I see it quite differently. I see a roster assembled for another age, lacking depth down the middle and shutdown presence on the back end, backstopped by an untested rookie in net, gelling under a bench leader with serious street cred, taking down the defending champs in round one and out-selfless-ing, out-sacrificing hockey’s most selfless and sacrificing club in round two.
I also see this: a hungry and determined hockey club. Bearing lethal composure. And it feels novel.
There seems to be a peaking quality to these Capitals in mid-May, as they ready for another series-determining game on the road. Isn’t this the Alexander Ovechkin we dreamed about seeing at this point in the calendar when he arrived here some seven years ago? He scores big goals, he creates plays, he engenders inordinate deference among backpedaling blueliners, he brutalizes every body in an opposing sweater. Wednesday night, when his team needed him most, he emerged as a beast.
Mike Green perhaps rightly earned derision in round one. He looked timid and unsure, overly cautious; he rarely rushed the puck. Not so now. The national television cameras during game 6 seemed to hover over Green swagger-sauntering about the ice during stoppages, while the announcers lavished praise upon him for his difference-making playmaking and poise. Green is absorbing really big hits from this Rangers team, just as he did from the Bruins before, but he merely readjusts his helmet and resumes his role as Calgary Energizer Bunny on the back end. Nicklas Backstrom has been the most consistent of the Caps’ elite performers this postseason, and the deeper we move into spring the more his endurance seems to improve. Green and Backstrom, difference-makers both, missed wide swaths of regular season play but now each night look like kids with keys to a rink who want to skate all night until the morning manager arrives.
You must have some semblance of decent health to endure and prosper in this Quest, it’s long been said. These Capitals may actually have more than that.
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Count me as one who relishes this break between games 6 and 7. I am witnessing an organizational metamorphosis, and so long as this postseason lasts, inclusive of its off days, the more I am removed from the ignominy of autumn and winter play. I adore where Saturday delivers us: inside the world’s most famous arena, at night, for our sport’s highest drama. Multiple overtimes in 40 hours’ time? Bring it, with my beers; I can sleep in; Mom on her day will understand.
Saturday, though, will be about Dad, and this son taking in the game 7 spectacle on the couch right next to him. He hails from a Big Apple suburb, attended high school in the big city, and made his way to the Garden as a youth for $5 admissions in the Original Six days. I wanted the Caps to win Wednesday partially because I wanted the Hunter Transformation Train to churn on, but I kept silent (so as not to jinx) my primary wish: sharing a really big night, a Saturday night deep into spring, with my Pops, watching the puck being elimination-game chased by the team he introduced me to in 1974. Next month he turns 70, and I have to keep silent what he most wants for his birthday.
I am quite aware of my fortune this weekend, no matter the game’s outcome. I’ve a bloggermate who’d surrender all his worldy possessions to share just one more such an evening with his old man, a father who like mine introduced him to the game, but cancer last year robbed them, permanently, of that partnership. I will be thinking a lot about my friend tomorrow night.
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One of my favorite friends in Washington hockey media will be flying home Saturday from an island vacation with his wife, she this spring a defeater of cancer. They will arrive home in time to see the game. He emailed me Thursday from the island, predicting a Capitals’ win. I want a win for them, too.
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And I will be thinking about my bloggermate Elisabeth, journeying to the Big Apple for the big game, miraculously credentialed for it. Thank you again, Washington Capitals, for your advocacy on our behalf. Back last August I met Elisabeth at Bugsy’s in Old Town, and instead of story-boarding a new season together I explained to her how, because of cancer, I couldn’t attend a single game in 2011-12, and how I needed her to pilot our press box seat. She’s had a wonderful season, exhibited wonderful story instincts, and continues to grow into a force of penetrating puck thought. I hope tomorrow night she witnesses a wonderful game and covers a winning locker room.