I've been to some of the most memorable moments in the brief history of the Verizon Center, and there is just one that can compare to the euphoria that swept through Chinatown on Tuesday.
June 13, 1998, during the Capitals' lone trip to the Stanley Cup Finals – in fact, the one time they've won so much as a game past the second round – with Washington down 2-0 in the series to Detroit and 1-0 in the game, deadline acquisition Brian Bellows ties it up. It was early in the game, but it was the one time that it seemed possible that this largely irrelevant franchise would ever win a championship. Yet there I was uncorking wild high fives as Ovechkin dragged down Fedorov along the boards after scoring his twelfth career playoff game winner, as Donald Rumsfeld shook a fist Tiger Woods style a section over, as people in the stands lept on top of friends, family, and strangers in celebration of this young team extending their season one more round and between two and twelve more home dates.
The fans were ready to turn on the home team as they skated off after the second period to a cascade of boos. The Rangers dominated the puck and cycled like Lance Armstrong in the middle stanza after decisively winning the first period. Antropov was stopped on an early breakaway where the man with the greatest reach in the series appeared indecisive, unable to decide on a move before running out of ice. Antropov scored on what amounted to a 2 on 0 a few minutes later, the seventh and final goal allowed by Varlamov in the series. Semin scored on a fluky knuckler deflected by Ryan Callahan to tie it up later in the first, and then it was 90 minutes of stress so profound that Rumsfeld looked like the most relaxed guy in his row. After the sweet release of Fedorov's wrister beating Lundqvist's glove, the King's 77th start of this season in three countries, Carolina was mounting their comeback in New Jersey lifting my pool to a perfect 8-0 and setting up the league's most anticipated matchup in at least a decade. Pittsburgh is coming to town for a Saturday matinee that just might be significant enough to be looked at as more than the opening act for the Kentucky Derby (And Celtic-Bulls Game 7 and Pacquiao-Hatton in one of the great non-NFL days in sports I can remember). Every single site I go to is picking Pittsburgh to continue their postseason mastery of Washington, and the four seed is a healthy favorite over the two seed. The thought process is that the Penguins at the moment are not the same team that the Caps dominated in the regular season, with the return of Gonchar and the acquisitions of Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin (each of these moves is more important than the coaching change). But Washington has made a slight upgrade of their own: from a guy with a 0.900 save percentage in the regular season to a guy with a 0.952 save percentage in the postseason. Just a scant two weeks ago I felt the only way the Caps would lose before the Finals was to run into a hot goalie. Now that they've got the hot goalie, I'm at a loss to find a weakness on Washington.
At the trade deadline, their defense appeared to be the unit most in need of an upgrade. Now Jurcina and Poti are playing out of their minds, Pothier is steady and has some of the freshest legs in the playoffs, and Erskine has become exactly the player McPhee envisioned when signing him to an extension. Mike Green may be playing through an injury, but he's showed signs the last two games of returning to his dominant regular season form. They've got the world's hottest goalie. And the most dynamic group of forwards the league has seen since the lockout. Anything can happen in the playoffs (just ask San Jose), but I do not see another team remaining as complete as Washington.
About the Author
Written by Ryan Cleaver
Ryan Cleaver was born in Björk’s house in Iceland and grew up on Easter Island, where his parents were giant stone heads. He has the ability to fire beams of tacos out of his hands and he can turn his legs into tigers. On Sundays, Ryan enjoys reading Family Circus and traveling through time. His favorite color is greenish-transparent and his favorite movie is the one you just watched.