Last night's game was joyful, if you were and/or are a Washington Capitals fan. Unless for some odd, unfathomable reason reading this blog is your only connectivity to the outside world, you already know the Washington Capitals completed a comeback from a 3-1 best of seven series deficit against the NY Rangers last night. If you didn't watch the game at all you only know the final score was 2-1, you might not know the Rangers played an excellent game, executing the "dreaded" 4-1 trap flawlessly for the first two periods and fairly well for the final period of the game. If you didn't watch the game in person at DC's Verizon Center, you might not have any idea or appreciation just how fantastic a celebration of world class NHL playoff hockey the game was, or how loud and enthusiastic the sellout crowd was either.
Thanks to an early goal by the Rangers' Nik Antropov, setup by that pesky, nuisance Sean Avery drawing multiple Washington Capitals into a shoving match in the corner, the Rangers led or were tied in this game for all but the final 4:59. Thankfully for the Capitals, if your only going to lead a hockey game for less than 5 minutes, the last 4:59 of the third period of game 7 of a playoff series is the right time to do it though. So even though, by my estimation, Sean Avery had finally made a real impact on the Rangers - Capitals Series where it counts, on the scoreboard, the Caps comeback was completed. Interestingly from a scoresheet perspective 4 of the 5 biggest names on last night's scoresheet were Russians and the fifth was also a European. I am speaking of the 3 goal scorers and the two goaltenders. As already mentioned, Nik Atropov scored the Rangers only tally, while Alexander Semin and Sergei Federov socred the two goals necessary for the Capitals to advance to Round 2. In net for the Capitals Simeon Varlamov (pronounced var-LAM-ov) aka CZAR-lamov, made the victory possible with several excellent saves, including two at the end of the second period that were crucial. Rangers netminder Henriq Lundqvist stopped 22 of 24 shots, a save percentage of 0.917 last night and didn't give the Caps much to shoot at all night.
The Rangers executed the 4-1 trap flawlessly during the first period, limiting the Caps to just two shots on goal, fortunately one was a great one by Alexander Semin that found the back of the net at 15:34 of the first period to tie the game at 1-1. The rest of the first and remainder of the second periods were tough minutes for the Capitals, New York played measured, patient team hockey and executed a stifling trap. The Blueshirts play limited the Caps scoring chances but they did get a few. Howver, either good recoveries by relentless backchacking or "King Henriq" kept the few Caps scoring chances out of the Rangers net at their end of the ice. While at the Caps end of the rink, they too had tightend things up after giving up that first goal to Antropov at the 5:35 mark of the first period. Finally at about the 15 minute mark of the third period, veteran and future Hall of Famer Sergei Federov, playing in the 8th game seven of his illustrious NHL career, got his chance for glory on a breakaway after an outlet pass from Matt Bradley. The 39 year old from Pskov, Russia did not flinch or miss, after streaking down the right side of the ice, he saw his opening. The Swedish Monarch in the net for the Rangers moved quickly to the left side of the net, however, Federov must have sensed Lundqvist moving too far or too fast and he pulled up instantly putting the puck past him into the upper left side of net past the Ranger goalies' right shoulder. Fedorov is now tied with Hockey Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux for 15th place on the league’s all-time playoff scoring list. Fedorov now has 12 game-winning goals in Stanley Cup playoff competition, tied for 17th on the NHL’s all-time list in that department. To put Fedrov's career playoff accomplishments in perspective, last night was his 176th NHL playoff game, that's almost 3 full regular seasons without missing a game's worth of playoff experience and accomplishments. He is now one game shy of matching Hockey Hall of Famer Al MacInnis for 25th on the league’s all-time list in that department. How's that for WOW!
The moment when Federov scored is when an already loud Verizon Center crowd erupted and stayed so "rumbling the rafters" for the remainder of the game. To be sure, the Caps played excellent, dominating hockey for those last 5 minutes of play and the Rangers only managed to get Lundqvist to the bench for just two seconds as the puck was in their zone for much of the final minutes of play. The crowd noise was the loudest I have ever heard it during ANY professional sporting event of my life. However, from where I could see it the crowd was always in control, to be sure some additional precautions were taken in and around the Rangers bench and they seemed well thought out and advisable to keep in place for pretty much all games.
As for crowd behaviour, you can only pretty much speak knowledgeably about the conduct in and around your own seat. But I can tell you from my discussions with my seatmates, it seems my friend Gary brought a group with him and they managed to get a fair number of seats in and around section 103 for game 5. Per the folks who usually sit around me there were no untoward incidents then and it was clear the usual good natured chat between hockey fans of rival teams was all conducted in a civil manner. Last night two Rangers fans, a husband and wife, sat in front of Tom and I, we had several good conversations at breaks in the action, like the prolonged delay when the glass needed to be repaired and between periods. They were nice folks and I believe they would say the same about us. The only thing they probably didn't like about the game was the outcome but I'm not going to work to change that anytime soon.
Another big - WOW - story of the game and series was now just turned 21 year old Simeon Varlamov. He took over for Jose Theodore after game one and through the last six games of the series he's compiled a 4-2 record with a SV% of 0.952 and a GAA of 1.17 - WOW! CZARlamov's athleticism and flexibility proved to be a deadly combination to the Rangers 2009 playoff objectives. Other pleasant developments that are notable so far from this series - the elevated level of play of the entire Capitals line up and the mature, patient adjustments being made to the games by the Caps young stars to playoff hockey. You can't write about this series without mentioning the improved level of focus and play by the blueline corps, notably Erskine, Jurcina, and Poti. Sure Green, ShaMo and Pothier are all also playing excellent hockey as well but most pleasantly surprising to me has been the play of John Erskine. Once again another move by Caps GM George McPhee, the Erskine contract extension this season, looks prescient. The return to the lineup by Brian Pothier has also helped but right now the amazing thing to me last night was it seemed like during the third period almost any of the six blueliners could play together without miscommunication, miscues or hesitation of any sort. Tom Poti had a great, not good, but great series against the Rangers and you can't not mention that. Up front, "the grinders" especially Matt Bradley, Dave Steckel and Boyd Gordon seemed to be pushing for folks to stand up and take notice of them so here it is - great series guys - WOW!
Okay like for the Caps no time to wallow in self-aggrandizement, thanks to a third period comeback by Carolina last night, the Caps will face the Pittsburgh Penguins in the next round. WOW! That one should be a barn-burner. Pittsburgh bested the Philadelphia Flyers 4-2 in their opening round series. Now the Caps have to put this one behind them and understand as great as last night's victory felt, it was just one down, three to go.
LETS GO CAPS!!!!