Well that went according to script, didn’t it?
The thing about trying to script an NHL game 7 is this: it’s a fool’s errand. An hour before faceoff last night the story was already mythical up in the Verizon Center press box: Rangers’ head coach John Tortorella, at a morning press scrum, asked for a show of hands among the New York media to see who believed his team would prevail against the surging, stylish Caps.
Not one hand was raised.
We should have known better than to believe all of those advance obituaries penned and prophesied for the Blueshirts.
Mike Green afterward said that the New York Rangers “played the perfect game. They couldn’t have played us better.” In his postgame remarks Bruce Boudreau suggested that his team should have won the series’ first six games, and on the bench in the third, his thoughts were of overtime and his team losing the one lone game it deserved to in this series.
What we got Tuesday night in Chinatown is what we should have from this sport — a thoroughly unscripted outcome; a team written off, from the get-go of the series but most especially, with conspicuous unanimity, ever since Sunday afternoon around 5:00, not only making a game of it but threatening again to spoil the season for the superior foe.
For the past two seasons I’ve listened to General Manager George McPhee plead with the press to believe him when he claimed that parity was the new order of the new NHL. Now we know. Beware of damning any team in this sport in advance of 60 minutes of a winner-take-all showdown.
Tuesday night was supposed to be vindication night, the night when the Caps exacted revenge for the devastating disappointment of last April’s game 7 defeat at the sticks of the Flyers. The Caps were supposed to be a year more seasoned, more battle-tested for this postseason. They sure didn’t look like it through 40 minutes last night.
Instead, Tuesday’s lasting imagery will be of one Russian in the extreme twilight of his career scoring the series-winning goal while his countryman in net at the very dawn of his career backstopped a struggling club through two periods of mayhem and turmoil, setting the stage for the final frame heroics. Simeon Varlamov allowed just 8 goals in six games in this series, accumulating a .950 save percentage and 1.34 goals-against. It is singularly Simeon Varlamov who is metamorphosing the postseason prospects for this Capitals’ club. The Sharks and Devils are gone; suddenly, the path to extreme prosperity seems less formidable.
My favorite friend in hockey, SovetskySport’s Dmitry Chesnokov, sat down next to me for Tuesday night’s third period. We analyzed the action just as we have the past three hockey seasons from up high. At 15:01 of the period, two-plus hours of tormenting tension were punctured in a flash, high on Henrik Lundqvist’s glove side again. It was a 4:59 read on the scoreboard few Caps fans will ever forget. The arena erupted in an eardrum-piercing frenzy.
It took me a full two seconds to digest the drama of the moment as delirium obliterated shouted conversation with the writer next to you, and then I turned and punched my good friend from Moscow in the right arm. This was a moment for him, uniquely, to savor. But my friend didn’t flinch. He didn’t look at me. He just stared down at that sheet of ice with its fast accumulating glee of sweatered red, surrounded by two bowls of 18,000 new best friends.
It occurred to me: Sergei Fedorov, much more so even today than Alexander Ovechkin, is a national treasure of a hero all across Russia. He is an enduring legend. A good many who follow hockey I suppose believed him this April to be past his series-winning heroics of his legendary past. My good friend Dmitry in this moment I think was hero-worshipping. Rightly so.
If Sergei Fedorov was the night’s first star the home crowd may well have been its second. Captain Chris Clark’s ears, he said after the game, were still ringing from the outrageously raucous rink. “It was like going to a rock concert . . . It built up and built up. After that ‘Unleash the Fury’ [siren call] and after [Feds] scored the goal it didn’t quiet down.”
Bruce Boudreau went a big step further in his assessment of the home crowd. He claimed that the throng’s cacophonous cries and on-their-feet solidarity actually propelled his players’ legs and bolstered their energy over the game’s final five minutes. If you were in that building then, and saw the Rangers penned in hard in their own end, powerless to liberate Henrik Lundqvist for a sixth skater, you couldn’t disagree.
My third star of the evening was the game’s referees, Dan O’Halloran and Brad Watson. They whistled a grand total of three penalties in the game. Meaning two things: first, the players did their part — John Tortorella acknowledged that both sides played hard and “free of the cheap stuff.” But O’Halloran and Watson did their part: allowing 40 swollen-hearted and gutsy hockey players to determine the outcome of this game 7. That is significant in light of what was done by the referees for last April’s game 7 here.
“I felt bad for the players last year,” George McPhee said in the hallway outside the Caps’ dressing room. “They had the game taken out of their hands last year in overtime, with a penalty I didn’t think we deserved.”
The players decided Tuesday night’s game, I replied.
“Which wasn’t what happened last year,” McPhee returned. “I thought it was a very well refereed game.”
It was a game which so easily could have produced another April disaster for a franchise that’s endured more than its fair share of such. The GM acknowledged that victory Tuesday night was absolutely necessary to vindicate the organization’s tearing apart and building back up this team this decade. That feeling of vindication was likely shared by most of the 18,000 strong who flooded Chinatown’s streets and crammed its bars in jubilation near 10:00 last night. More basic and apparent in all of them was the equally merited emotion: that so yearned for, so elusive joy of victory at this time of year.