How often have we been able to say that?
To what extent does victory like last night’s serve as lasting balm over the scabs and scars from so many springs, that have marred and maimed our pysche so long? It was a game 7 stunner in an American sports mecca, and against the defending champs no less, and as such it does go a long way to redeeming the 2011-12 season, to be sure. But doesn’t it also do a good bit more – existentially, even? In the warming embers of valiant victory’s glow, we want to say we think so.
Still, the overarching tally is vulgar and tough — our guys are 3-7 in game 7s. But this morning we can think only of no. 3.
And besting the defending champs to earn it does magnify the feat. The Washington Capitals had never before done that — taken down a champ. George McPhee this spring talked about how in his evaluation of the Bruins he saw a club this season that actually seemed stronger than the Cup-winning one of a year ago. They got out of the gate slow — 3-7 in their first 10 — but then the Big Bs went gangster. On December 16 they swaggered into Philly and laid down a beatdown of the first order on the Flyers, 6-0, a humiliation that wasn’t anywhere near as close as the score indicated. By Christmas the Bs were 23-9-1 and looking very much like Repeat material. More gaudy, gratuitous good fortune for the sports fans of Beantown, seemingly.
But the Bs cooled off big time in the season’s second half. Injuries played a part. Still, Tim Thomas wasn’t far off his Vezina and Conn Smythe form of the spring before, Chara was Chara, the forward ranks were brimming with 20-goal scorers, they were well coached, and the roster overall looked ready for more durable spring battle.
This wasn’t an opponent these work-in-progress Capitals should have have welcomed in round one.
About the middle of the series the Capitals’ Mike Vogel, on intermission radio with John Walton, alluded to Capitals players collectively “buying in” to the strategic mandate Dale Hunter began crafting last fall. There was “complete buy-in,” Vogs said, and he was right. The Capitals of recent previous springs suffered from a style that was all too easy to suppress in postseason congestion, ferocity, and brutality, and most recently — last spring – from a failed attempt to evolve into something they seemingly were not. These Washington Capitals evolved alright, and they did so because of one man, one Legend, and his now — we can say it (and please join us in saying it, Mike Wise!) — heroic return to his hockey home.
What comes next for these Capitals we cannot know, but in an important sense it really doesn’t matter. Dale Hunter alone deserves credit for righting a seemingly hopelessly adrift ship, for reminding HockeyWashington of the way hockey should be played when it mattered. This is not to say that Braden Holtby is any less a series-altering hero; that John Carlson and Karl Alzner didn’t raise their respective games dramatically relative to the regular season; that Alex Semin shouldn’t be called out for coming through clutch when the team’s other stars weren’t shining as bright. But this stunning series triumph doesn’t happen without the Old Captain coming home and imposing his will on this roster, on this organization.
Watching Dale Hunter embrace his assistants on the bench in the immediacy of victory last night, you couldn’t help but wonder: how in relation to that other game 7 stunner, of 1988, did this match up for him?
Another newcomer made last night historically memorable — John Walton. The hunch here is that by virtue of his extraordinary rookie NHL season — one that eanred him lead moonlighting duty on national television broadcasts — a good many Caps fans were tuned in to his radio call near 10:50 last night. Those who were won’t soon forget it.
Put any team under a microscope, and you will find flaws. The Capitals have theirs to be sure. But a team that can take the #2-seeded defending Stanley Cup champions and battle them to a Game 7 elimination at their home arena, and triumph – that’s a special brand of Red, and one worth celebrating especially in light of all that preceded this spring.
This was a refreshingly different sense of satisfaction than beating the Rangers last year in round 1, and in fewer than 7 games. This was about earning every inch of ice space and ice time you could carve out for yourself. Ask the current captain. Washington needed this; HockeyWashington especially needed this.
RG III arrives in D.C. this evening. How nice would it be for him to join in our Red Party a bit, and hear him reflect amid all those pigskin reporters, “Let’s go Caps!”
It is fun to think about this morning: What might this victory mean for hockey here? Years ago, triumph in a single series was a mere nicety, and something somewhat common for the league’s elite. Today, for this organization, in this town, necessarily it means a great deal more. By virtue of our massive electrified engagement in shared passions, victory and defeat in sports today is mega-magnified, as never before, and last night on line sure seemed special for the D.C. set. It wasn’t difficult to be indifferent to hockey here not all that long ago. This morning, approriately, hockey we think means more.