Monday, March 24, 2008

Of faith lost... and faith restored

After the first period of last Wednesday's debacle with Chicago, I have to admit I turned off the television and headed out of the house. The Caps looked like a team whose time had finally run out. The Caps were playing a tired, sloppy game and it looked as if the pressure that had been bearing down on them all season long had finally taken its toll. When I came back later that night and checked the highlights (I couldn't bear to watch the entire game on my DVR), it didn't get any better. A 5-0 loss to a Chicago team not known for its defensive prowess? Surely this was the end for the Caps.

Friday night, I set my DVR to record the game against the Thrashers, more as a postmortem than anything else. I wasn't sure what to expect, but I did know that if I didn't take my girlfriend out for dinner that night instead of watching the game live that the Caps season wouldn't be the only thing in danger.

So I left, hoping against hope Alex Ovechkin would at least tally a goal and bring him closer to the magic number: 60 goals. I thought that the team was too young and too exhausted to produce a win on the road. And when I called the Deuce from my house after returning from dinner, he quickly reinforced my beliefs. I asked him if I could come over to his house and watch the end of the game, since he had recorded it and was at the end of the second period.

"I don't think you want to" was his reply. I asked the score, and he told me. 3-1 Thrashers. Not good. Not good at all. The Caps have had all sorts of trouble with the Thrashers this season, exemplified by a 2-0 loss in which the Caps were essentially trapped to death by a team that at the time lacked its only reliable goal scorer in Ilya Kovalchuk.

I asked who scored, and the Deuce provided what I expected to be the only good news of the night. Ovechkin had tallied number 59 in the first period. "Oh well," I thought to myself. "I might as well head over there just in case he pots sixty." A Capitals win was not even a blip on the radar at this point.

Just a few minutes later, I was in front of the television and watching as the Thrashers looked to snuff the Caps playoff hopes for the year by suffocating them with the oh-so-boring trap. And for the first five minutes or so of the third, that looked like exactly what was going to happen.

And then it happened. It didn't start with a goal, but rather a bone-jarring, damn-the-torpedoes-full-speed-ahead monster of a hit by Ovechkin on the forecheck. It exeplified everything about Ovechkin that has made him the talk of hockey fans around the world. It showed passion, speed, power, and above all else the burning fire to win. We will not go quietly into the night, his beautiful and brutal check seemed to ring out in the arena.

It stood as a statement for the players on both teams to see. You could see the look on the Russian Machine's face as he skated back into the play immediately afterwards. It needed no translation, no interpretation.

THIS GAME IS NOT OVER. I AM NOT FINISHED WITH IT YET.

And thus the onslaught began. Bruce Boudreau knew his season depended on getting his best players on the ice at all times, so he shortened the bench and rotated two lines: Ovechkin-Backstrom-Kozlov and a hodgepodge of the rest of the team as the second line. The move paid off beautifully. Had the Caps rotated three lines, they would never have been able to keep the constant pressure on Kari Lehtonin and the Thrashers. But with Ovechkin and Backstrom on the ice every other shift, the constant crashing of their offensive forays against the Thrashers overmatched defenders was simply too much to bear.

Yet again it was Ovechkin leading the way, working down in the trenches setting a screen for a Mike Green slapshot and deftly depositing the rebound over the shoulder of a helpless Lehtonin. The joy on Ovechkin's face after 60 was as vibrant as the sun on a clear summer day, but behind it there was the menace, the ruthless, awe-inspiring drive that would not be denied.

Great players feed off each other, and Ovechkin's passion energized the entire team, but most importantly it inspired Nicklas Backstrom to play the best period of his life. Four minutes of intense Capitals pressure after Ovechkin's 60th, Backstrom took a pass in deep from a pinching Mike Green and fired an absolute rocket past Lehtonin, who was beginning to wilt under the Capitals constant barrage. The shot was something you'd expect from Ovechkin or Semin, but from a setup man like Backstrom? Clearly, something special was in the works for the Caps.

Less than a minute later, with score tied and the Thrashers reeling, Ovechkin and Backstrom combined one more time to seal the victory. Ovechkin fired himself from the faceoff dot as if he was shot out of a cannon, beating both Thrashers to a loose puck behind the net in the process. He deftly passed it to Backstrom, who was camped on the short side of the crease. Backstrom made no mistake as he calmly slotted the puck into the net, and the Capitals rejoiced, their season saved for at least another game.

Whether or not the Capitals are able to secure a playoff spot this season, the last 10 minutes of the game against Atlanta showed what this young team and, in particular, its two young stars have brought to Washington. This team may not win out this year, but their time is coming. Any fan that saw Ovechkin and Backstrom on that amazing Friday night knows it.

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