The big picture: Hockey in the National League has been contested since 1917, and in all that time only two clubs have achieved winning streaks longer than the Washington Capitals’ run of 14 — the Islanders’ 15 consecutive wins of 1981-82 and the Penguins’ 17 in a row during the ’92-’93 season. There’s a strong correlation between such winning and winning Stanley Cups — the Penguins were defending Cup champs in ’92-’93, and the Islanders won another in ’81-’82.
In the embers of last night’s 6-5 streak-snuffing setback in Montreal Craig Laughlin I thought honed in on the correct perspective for the defeat, suggesting that what the Capitals have achieved since January 12 we may well never see again. Ever. It truly is that special. Bruce Boudreau, without casting aspersions on the gaudy winning streaks of either the New York Islanders or Pittsburgh Penguins, noted the eras in which those respective runs occurred: they weren’t ones of league-wide parity.
All such streaks eventually end, but this ending needn’t be an occasion for disappointment for Capitals’ fans. The Capitals over the past four weeks in particular have managed to recast their image not only in the NHL but in the broader sports world.
This morning I take a more important finding from all this uninterrupted winning: the hockey team in D.C. has cultivated a conspicuous and, likely, lasting culture of winning. When it trails the defending Stanley Cup champions by two goals entering a game’s final 20 minutes, it expects to win. When it trails a playoff-desperate Montreal club on the road by three goals entering the final frame, it again expects to win. It concedes defeat never. This is a powerful attribute to have in the postseason.
Every night the Capitals take the ice they own a marked talent advantage over their adversary. That is part of this culture of winning. But there are outsized indicators of dramatic success ahead with this club that your father’s Capitals never enjoyed: namely, Ovi and Gabby. The Capitals’ ultimate destiny rests on their respective shoulders. This morning Capitals’ fans should be excited about that.
The wager here is that when his career in Washington is over Alexander Ovechkin will rank as the greatest and most accomplished athlete in Washington sports history. Years back General manager George McPhee, when asked to compare Ovechkin’s abilities to those of another star NHLer, paused only briefly before settling on Mark Messier. ‘Mess was a Hall of Fame talent and a Hall of Fame leader. It’s early in the Gr8′s leadership reign to be sure, but this team sure seems to like being led by him. Last night’s third period didn’t feature another vintage Ovechkin news-stealing performance, but it was nonetheless his team that battled back from a daunting 5-2 hole in a tough building, forcing overtime.
It was 5-2 Habs last night when Ovechkin, seeing that the puck wasn’t yet secured by Carey Price, ran through 6 ’7, 250-pound Hal Gill to will it into the Montreal cage, to get his team back into the game. It was a goal that should have counted, incidentally. Anyway, I’m not sure Messier could have done that.
The league hasn’t yet digested the full aura of Ovechkin because it’s never seen such a phenomenon. On ‘NHL Live’ yesterday afternoon Stan Fischler opened the program with the observation that he’d long believed that the best player comparison to Ovechkin was with Rocket Richard, but that of late the dean of hockey writers was seeing things from the Gr8 that even Richard couldn’t pull off. Esteemed historians of our sport are speaking of our captain in Rocket airs — and suggesting that our guy might just be better.
Bruce Boudreau, in addition to winning championships at two levels of pro hockey already, reminds me of that favorite mechanic you can take your car to when you just know something is wrong with it but no other mechanic in town can diagnose it. Raise your hand if back in November you thought it long overdue to try out Tomas Fleischmann at center.
He’s patiently developed Flash, Green, Steckel, Fehr, Schultz, and Laich into core contributors on a championship-caliber team. The elite talents in his charge have blossomed into game-breaking dynamos. Gabby has three goalies now with at least nine wins each with still two months of hockey to play. He seems to be able to rotate them rather well. Smart money is on him leaving D.C. one day having earned the designation as the Caps’ winning-est and best coach in franchise history.
I expect to see an ornery band of Capitals contest tonight’s game in Canada’s capital. That they face the second-hottest team in the NHL is irrelevant. They endured an outcome last night they deem intolerable.
So one strong streak of winning has ended. A far more important one, I think, has just begun.