Right as Washington was settling in for a spring-delayed/prolonged winter weekend last night came word (via Twitter, necessarily) of some manner of meteor shower, or meteor explosion, high in the sky above the capital. For those watching the hockey televised from Winnipeg then, the astronomical anomaly could just as easily have been reported the dramatic arrival of a UFO, one that in its path over North America had borne 20-some-odd extra strength, extra-terrestrial skaters in red, and air-dropped in Manitoba.
From what planet exactly did these dominating Capitals skaters come from?
I’m here to urge: Don’t start asking the questions you want to. Don’t get caught up in irrationally exuberant conjecture. Don’t scurry over to Sportsclubstats.com for updated postseason odds (though the upward movement for Red overnight was dramatic). Most of all, don’t pretend that what for all of winter 2013 has been 12-pack ugly is suddenly beauty pageant worthy.
Instead, do what I did with Thursday and Friday: have hockey fan fun with it, celebrate the outcomes in their isolation, and allow the finally-arrived feel-great vibe to wipe away, somewhat, fully two months of abject misery. Just for this weirdly winter prolonged weekend.
Spend Saturday moving about your errands in Red, lots of it even, and when the cynics confront you and do what cynics do, offer a revelry of relish: Thursday and Friday were for the Caps very much showdown affairs, very much do or die, and our guys didn’t just get it done, they went schoolyard bully on the ‘Peg. Jets coach Claude Noel did what every coach does after an opening showdown beatdown: he went to the press with his motivational pitch, expressing embarrassment, meticulously autopsying his charges’ failings, challenging his troops, and come puck-drop Friday . . . it didn’t do a lick of good. His guys got pasted again. Worse, actually, than they did 23 hours earlier. Run out of their building for a second consecutive night.
It’s time, however briefly, to suspend our disbelief in this very flawed hockey team. Merely for the fun of it.
What the outcomes in Manitoba didn’t change was the fundamental roster flaws that will eventually doom this Capitals club. Guys who shouldn’t be skating in anyone’s top six still are. But this weekend, that doesn’t matter. We in D.C. were overdue the feel-good elixir of these thumpings, and it’s right and just to indulge it. We’re headed to Gotham with serious MoJo (and a suddenly productive MoJo); let us savor the sudden and scintillating swagger.
Having cautioned and exhorted you thusly, it’s also true, as my blogger buddy Ed Frankovic this week noted, that new-found health has aided the Caps. Brooks Laich is a leader-warrior; Mike Green is a dynamic puck-moving presence; though young and of limited experience, Dmitri Orlov is loaded with talent, precociously polished on the puck.
But I’ll perhaps surprise you with my Hero callout. He’s wholly unheralded, undrafted, at 27 an NHL rookie, a most modest 6 feet, 190 pounds which seem to play closer to 6 ‘4, 240 . He’s journeyed from Lake State to Las Vegas to Lake Erie. He perhaps doesn’t possess a single standout trait, and yet every time he jumps over the boards he seems to deliver a shift rife with impact, accountability and . . . snarl. Call him an American purveyor of Old Time Hockey. Certainly you should call him the season’s feel-good story.
Night after night this month I’ve watched Steve Oleksy and couldn’t help but wonder: what might he look like under the tutelage of Dale Hunter?
Not that there’s a whole lot of deficiency to what Oleksy has brought night after night, or anything lacking in how the present coaching staff has managed him. It’s just that all last season, I felt like Hunter had Matt Hendricks and little else on the Capitals roster to remind him of how hockey should be played. The highest compliment I can pay a hockey player I’ll bestow on Oleksy this morning: He plays hockey the way it ought to be played.
And the biggest problem I’ve had with the Capitals since about the time Dale Hunter departed as team captain is the conspicuous deficit of such players. I genuinely believe that Oleksy’s unwavering guts, determination, I’ve-got-your-back ethos has had as much to do with the Capitals’ vastly improved look of late as any Adam Oates scheme finally absorbed by the roster at large, as much as the skill impact, in the aggregate, the result of the return of all those returned-to-health skill millionaires. Do I believe that one single hockey player can, with his indefatigable hockey heart, reorient and recast an entire room of mediocrity and disappointment? You bet.
So in this corner of bloggerdom, Oleksy is playing a John Druce-like role of unsung hero, not so much with his stats as Druce did but with his swagger. But there was at least one other factor for me at play accounting for the Capitals success out in Manitoba.
I took notice of this big mini-series being played out in a prairie town of sub-zero temps, on a stellar sheet of ice (how many bouncing pucks did you notice?), resulting in fast and dynamic playmaking, most often by the visitors. I couldn’t help but think that we couldn’t have seen such fast and crisp power play passing, such efficient and deft puck distribution out of their own end, had the Caps instead been competing in Atlanta. Moreover: the Caps dressed a roster for this special sheet of ice. Green and Laich and Orlov can move, and the most mobile Oleksy and Marcus Johansson have begun to earn meaty minutes, but note the exclusion (some to injury) of plodders Schultz, Erskine, Poti, and Wolski.
Again, there remain roster holes with these Caps, notable ones, but not all that long ago George McPhee seemed to be assembling a markedly quick hockey club before suddenly seeming to abandon that plan. Almost by accident, quickness has returned — that was one quick-to-the-puck Caps club out in Winnipeg. Imagine if they could ever have a sheet of ice anything close to that here.