Like many in the region, I lost power in my home during Wednesday night’s storm. But I’ve a four-wheel drive and a flatscreen-laden Chili’s nearby, and I really wanted to watch the Capitals’ final game before the All Star break. Bruce Boudreau had identified Wednesday night’s game in Atlanta as a big one.
(Like those in Tampa January 12, and Philly a week later.)
And so I braved the extreme elements in pursuit of televised, big-game puck. Might not have been the wisest course of action, but I regard myself as a hearty winter soul.
In ordinary weather I’ve merely a three- or four-minute commute to my local Chili’s, but Wednesday evening was anything but ordinary. The roads were madness, chaos, quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my hometown in winter — even last year’s anomalously snow-buried one. Ill-informed or belligerent drivers of small, rear-wheel-drive cars had no chance. None. And because of stranded and abandoned buses I had to navigate a 4-mile, highly circuitous route to the restaurant. I made it, finally, and was thrilled to be seated in warmth smack in front of a 50-inch flatscreen, all to myself, tall draft beer before me. I’d missed only the opening couple of minutes of the game. (Obviously, no scoring.) The evening at that moment felt quite special; I rather enjoyed the adventurous ardor by which to view the big game.
Then I watched it. Well, tried to.
The next time you read or hear a prominent hockey commentator — particularly one up in Canada, one who isn’t tasked with watching Washington Capitals’ games night in, night out — blather on about all being just dandy in D.C. these days, that the Caps are merely dress rehearsing for the big springtime production, shoot him a quick email that informs:
- The Washington Capitals have won a grand total of nine of their last 25 games. Does that strike you as the mid-season form of a champion-in-waiting?
- Also, if the game goes to OT, they’ve no chance.
I was appalled by what I watched Wednesday night. Again. In another “big game,” the Capitals came up incredibly small. There’s far more power outage among the Capitals’ forwards than any Montgomery County neighborhood serviced by Pepco. And it isn’t accidental. Not only didn’t the Caps score, again, really they didn’t even come close to. Again.
More and more this is a hockey season of unfathomable waste in Washington. So little worth preserving on the DVR. New Years Day is less a grand feat in the context of the whole season because we now realize that the game’s swamp conditions greatly aided the guests. The Caps’ most impressive games this season came way back in the fall, when the Caps were the Caps of old: exciting. Now they’re the Devils of the past 15 or 20 years. What I really need from Pepco this hockey season are outages from 7:00-10:00 on Capitals’ game nights.
I was filled with disgust at the game-ending horn Wednesday, and I immediately rang my buddy Michael in up Maine, who I knew was watching like I was. I didn’t even get a hello in to him before I heard these words from his mouth: “Uninspired and unwatchable.”
Utterly perfect synopsis.
The Washington Capitals this winter are unwatchable — particularly from the vantage of those laying out large coins to be seated down low in Verizon Center, having responded to the offseason marketing cry of, Washington’s most exciting sports brand — the only winning game in town!
At the end of my 20-minute telephone catharsis with Michael Wednesday I realized that my outrage wasn’t directed merely at another lousy result in a “big game” but what the Capitals’ surrender meant in a macro-philosophical sense. Remember the adage “The new NHL”? It represented an evolution away from the clutch-and-grab, drab trap and dump NHL hockey pre-lockout. The one that ESPN rightfully abandoned. In the new NHL hockey was to be played . . . with flow and creativity, with scoring consequently elevated. In other words, as it’s supposed to be played. In capitulating as the Capitals have this winter, in playing away from their roster strength, they’ve basically dropped the proud flag of up-tempo thrill that actually made Washington a hockey town.
Our last great hope perhaps is to have the Vancouver Canucks win Lord Stanley this season. The brand of hockey they displayed at Verizon Center a few weeks back was captivating — fast and synchronous, quality scoring chance after quality scoring chance generated, hard-hitting, hockey the way it’s supposed to be played. The Caps did everything they could in that game to uglify it. Naturally, they lost. Because they’re impostors.
George McPhee this week announced the resigning of Alexander Semin. A part of me wondered why he pursued such a skilled player to play in this slop of a system. But then I realized: McPhee and Bruce Boudreau genuinely want a 0-0 result in 5-on-5 play this season, especially in the postseason — that’s what these new-look Caps seem to be able to consistently generate, after all — and hope that Semin or Mike Green can tally on a power play, and then they’ll hold on.
Two weeks ago, when I went up to Philly for that other big game, I joined Lisa Hillary for a between-periods radio segment with WTOP’s Jonathon Warner. Warner asked Lisa if she was surprised by what she’d seen from the Capitals on the evening. Lisa turned and looked blankly at me, a bit fearful I think of her instinct to be blunt and frank on the air in that moment. But she replied, “Jonathon, I don’t recognize the Capitals’ team I’m seeing tonight.”
You know, there remain 10 more contractual years of Alexander Ovechkin’s NHL career in Washington. What if you knew that all 10 were to be played in a system such as this season’s? Wouldn’t you hurl yourself in front of the next available snowplow?
It is uniquely the NHL that soils the intrinsic beauty of this great game. George McPhee this week acknowledged there being a lot of “copy-catting” by teams in the league. It’s a copy-catting of the lowest common denominator: take highly skilled hockey players and suffocate their instincts and skillsets within a soporific system that stymies. It’s socialized hockey. When have you associated socialism with creativity and inspiration? It’s the old ways versus the short-lived, tantalizingly exciting new. I understand the need of many European pro teams, in leagues in nations whose best players have come over to the NHL, to play neutral zone suffocation — there’s a dearth of talent there. But watch our Americans who’ve come up through the USNDTP, in any international tournament today, in any age bracket. The Red, White and Blue develop young guns of great gallop, and they attack in waves and pressure the puck in every inch of the ice. It’s so beautiful to watch. It’s hockey as hockey should be played. It’s also the hockey the NHL promised us it was returning to.
Label this surrender style the Caps are playing whatever you want, but most assuredly, if you are a lover of hockey as it should be played, you can’t call it inspired. Or watchable.