April 24, 2008
As the Stanley Cup Playoffs continue, we're bound to lose some friends along the journey. Gone but not forgotten, we've asked for these losers to be eulogized by the people who knew the teams best: The fans who hated them the most. Here's Hooks Orpik from the Pittsburgh Penguins blog The Sweater Ted, fondly recalling the Capitals.
We gather here today to mourn the end of the Washington Capitals. The team known as an underdog that clawed its way into the playoffs, even if it meant winning seven games straight at the end of the year against non-playoff bound teams.
Looking back, we won't remember the bitter end and sore losers littering the ice with debris, but rather the exuberance of Alexander Ovechkin jumping into the boards celebrating a big goal. That will be the lasting memory of this season; Ovechkin's emergence from star to Hart Trophy contender.
As noted Canadian scholar James Duthie said: "After two years of playing bass to lead singer Sidney Crosby in the small band of NHL megastars, this is Ovechkin's time." Unfortunately, Ovechkin's time is now over, leaving that other guy to rock out solo. AO acquitted himself well in the postseason: scoring goals, throwing checks and fighting through the physical abuse by a physical team. If only his linemates like Viktor Kozlov (0 goals, 3 assists, team-worst minus-4) could have stepped it up, Alex might still be working his magic.
Speaking of the Penguins, someone must not have told future Calder Trophy runner-up Nicklas Backstrom that Pittsburgh did not, in fact, select him in the 2006 draft. Because, you know, Backstrom had one of his five game-winning goals this season for the Pens (video here). I'm told Backstrom was so upset by this he actually decided to start scoring goals for his own team. The Swedish meatball scored 7 goals in his next 19 games (regular and postseason), compared to just the 11 goals in his first 70 games.
It was a remarkable ride for a team that sat 6-14-1 at Thanksgiving and was headed back to its familiar place in the basement. But then magic happened when a coach who looks like Mr. Potato Head arrived on the scene with a twinkle in his eye and a strange little smile. As the team kept plugging along, the building started filling with fans, especially after the Caps signed Ovechkin to a record-setting $124 million contract in January. Washington, a hockey town? In the last couple of months it was starting to morph into one; for once not only was hockey not an afterthought, but the buzz of the town. Anywhere you went, a TV was tuned to Caps games full of cheering onlookers -- even at Mexican restaurants.
Lost in all of this excitement is the sad story of a formerly important player fading to the background. Sure enough as some stars rise, others must fall; and before there was Alex as the face of the franchise, there was Olie. However it was trade deadline pickup Cristobal Huet that the Caps hitched their wagon to, and the proud South African/German/Canadian netminder quietly had to watch the Caps no longer be "his team" any longer.
Though it is no consolation to the departed or their friends, in the grand scheme of things this recently concluded season was a huge one of progress for the young core of players. As we've seen time and again, rare is it that a group so young and inexperienced leaps right into the NHL playoffs and succeeds. Next year, guys like Ovechkin, Backstrom, Mike Green and Alex Semin will be all the more better from losing this year. That perspective is hard to take now that the ride is abruptly over, but in the scheme of things, time will heal the wounds left.
Now elimination has done all that elimination can do. As the Caps go on their way, we are left with the joyful hope they shared.