High up in Verizon Center Tuesday night I felt as if I had a guardian angel-devil on my shoulder, named Killer, monitoring with me the matchup with one of the Caps’ fiercest rivals. In big games against our most hated enemies, when the breaks aren’t going our way, often I think back to Capitals’ heroics of the somewhat distant past, wondering if they could somehow be replicated anew. Things looked bleak Tuesday when the Orange and Black earned the game’s first two tallies, while the Caps, striding rather than churning, misfiring on passes, making more of a mess with the power play, clung desperately to the heroics of their last line of defense, Jose Theodore.
Few NHLers who played in the 1990s I imagine would associate Killer with the notion of anything angelic; but a most prideful protector of the Capitals’ crest? Oh yes.
I didn’t tell my guardian angel-devil this, but I surely thought it: I’m glad you’re here tonight, to witness what’s got me concerned about our team these days. We lack a little sandpaper about the lineup, I fear. You of all people know what I’m talking about.
People of faith believe in guardian angels, and on this night for some reason I believed I had one for a hockey game. My guardian angel-devil was unwavering in his faith in the boys in red, the color he once wore. Instead of whispering in my ear he flashed messages of faith, devotion, courage, and conviction throughout the game across my laptop screen. ‘I have faith in my ole boy Gabby . . . the Caps are gonna win,’ he said. In this hockey press box within which irrefutable data is rapidly accumulated, crunched, and disseminated to the chroniclers, Tuesday night I felt as if I had an almost celestial advisor on the action.
I was channeling my guardian angel-devil Killer because he made a point of rallying his Capitals’ troops back in the day in games just like Tuesday’s: the enemy was taking it to us, in our building, draining all the life out of the big home crowd. What was desperately needed was an ignition source, to reverse the adverse momentum. That ignition source 15 years ago was of a thoroughly undersized frame and oversized heart, forged in the western frontier of Canada; today he’s chiseled like a linebacker, charismatic in the extreme, as skilled as any hockey player on the planet, also in possession of a special hockey heart, and forged in the faraway land of Russia.
To my guardian angel-devil, this early-game query: How do you teach your players to play with the intensity you always showed. Play the game hard and stick up for your teammates . . . I loved to watch you play.
‘I try and install the MENTAL toughness in them on and off the ice . . . DEMAND it from your vets, and make it contagious in the locker room and on the ice . . . when you have that you get success’ — this flashed across my computer screen.
Another inquiry amid the early-game agony — Who did you emulate?
‘Wendel Clark,’ Killer quickly replied, and for all-caps emphasis, ‘ALL HEART.’
‘The game has changed due to the new rules, speed speed and speed,’ Killer added. ‘But with no clutching and grabbing . . . I think there should be more hitting.’
There was a common refrain to Killer’s messaging Tuesday night: take a number. An Islander goes after Mike Green’s knee? Take a number. Capitals’ defenders allow Flyer forwards too many liberties in the crease? Take a number.
Killer had a hungry appetite for reminiscing Tuesday night, and as he regaled me in it I found myself easily distracted from the early drubbing taking place down below.
‘My body HURTS 24/7, besides the 2 shoulder and lower back operations, and the 651 stitches, 2 plates 12 screws holding the right side of face together . . . my health couldn’t be better . . . but it was all worth it to play for the CAPS . . . a dream come true.’
New-age ignition arrived at 16:08 of period two: Ovi, his 10th marker on the season. The building came alive. And two minutes later, the home team struck again, on the power play, leveling the affair at 2.
In the third, a tandem of Russian ignition, and more heroics between the pipes, secured a terrific come-from-behind victory for the home team.
In the post-game, when it was pointed out to them that hockey teams who squander nearly two full minutes of 5-on-3 power play time rarely go on to win, players like Nicklas Backstrom claimed that their failure only fueled anger and resolve on the bench. My guardian angel-devil would have liked to have heard that.
Earlier on Tuesday, at the morning skate, the Capitals’ head coach was asked for his thoughts about Killer, and his reply seemed to channel what I did 10 hours later in the arena.
“I have a lot of thoughts on [Killer], but none that I can say! I only played with him his first year and he played 40 games and had 450 minutes in penalties and he played another 18 playoff games and I think had another 150 minutes in penalties, so that year he had 600 minutes in penalties and he wasn’t even 160 lbs! I garnished so much respect for him. As a competitive teammate, there was none better. As someone you went to war with, none better. He played a very long time for the way he played. He was a great, great teammate.”
I work in a medium that is miraculous. Fifteen years ago when I attended a Capitals’ game and in the tough going of tough nights at home, I held out hope for a hop over the boards by a warrior-hero whose self-maiming guts and courage could yet still reverse the bad momentum mojo. Killer left the playing of our game as they all do, and I never imagined it possible that he’d return to some role in presiding over a momentum reversal again for our boys. But on Tuesday night he was back, thanks to this miracle medium, his spirit most definitely involved in this affair, his loyalty and faith unwavering, unyielding. The boys in red got the job done on Tuesday night, vanquishing one of our most-hated foes, and my guardian angel-devil named Killer, savoring the victorious moment in real time just as I was, flashed a final message across my screen as 18,000 in the Chinatown Red Army exited in euphoria, one that did nothing to lessen my belief in guardian angels with a devil’s streak.
‘I told you the CAPS were gonna win . . . I’m 1 for 1 . . . they gotta have me back now . . . go Ovy . . . great job Gabby and Go Caps.’