In early March, with the Washington Capitals losing to the hapless New York Islanders and the team's playoff hopes slowly dwindling away, team owner Ted Leonsis donned a hideous "rally poncho" bought for him by a friend in Mexico. "It is so ugly it is beautiful," he said. It also worked: The Caps scored twice to tie the game and added a goal in overtime. At the time, the win pushed them back into eighth place.
If Leonsis didn't have the old Capitals rally poncho specifically in mind after last night's first-round win over the Boston Bruins, he at least seemed to have absorbed the garment's spirit. "That wasn't pretty," he said when asked about Joel Ward's chippy Game 7-winning overtime goal. "That was beautiful."
Of course the series between the Boston Bruins and the Washington Capitals would stretch to seven games, and stretch on into overtime from there. How else to end a playoff matchup that had turned into the tightest competition in hockey? For the first time ever, all seven meetings between the two teams were won by a margin of just one goal. Four of them ended in overtime. Two were decided in the game's final two minutes. For just under three minutes in Game 5, the Capitals led by a score of 2-0 — the most lopsided the score would ever get between the two teams.
That the series was even close was a big win for the Capitals, whose goal was to keep it precisely that way: low-scoring, physical, full of hits and blocked shots. So devoted was head coach Dale Hunter1 to keeping things tight and defensively minded that throughout the series he often kept the more goal-oriented Alexander Ovechkin on the bench. Ovechkin was on the ice for just 15 seconds of Game 4's final 14 minutes. In Game 5, he played 15:34 total, a career low for him in the playoffs. In Game 7, he got 4:04 of ice time in the first period and finished with 16:25 overall, only ninth most among forwards. When he was put on the ice, it was in strictly offensive situations. If departed head coach Bruce Boudreau had been trying to mold Ovechkin into a more two-way player, Hunter appears to view him as a guy who's good in one direction half the time. (That half being when Dennis Seidenberg isn't on the ice, I suppose. What a save!)
"We win the game, it's most important thing right now," Ovechkin said after Game 4. "It doesn't matter if I'm going to play 10 seconds or five seconds, most important thing is team result."
Had the Capitals ended up on the other side of the score sheet — which it appeared that they might when Patrice Bergeron found himself looking at a whole lot of net just a minute into OT — it's a safe bet that most of the reactions to such a strategy would have been negative (and all of them would have been loud). But the nice thing about winning in the postseason is staving off those uncomfortable conversations — those big questions and hot seats and trade rumors — for another two or so weeks.
For the Bruins, that grim phase begins now, and indications are that much of it will focus on the future of Tim Thomas. The goalie's last minutes on the ice had the feel of an ending, of a pretty old dude looking back on himself. "Great job, kid," he told Braden Holtby, the third-stringer who helped steal the series for the Caps (and starred in the most badass GIF to come out of the playoffs so far). He skated over to an actual kid, this one a crying fan, to encourage him to turn that frown upside down.2 Ultimately, though, Boston shouldn't have too much to answer for. They looked beat and got booed — they were snakebitten often, unlucky sometimes, and terrifying too rarely — but they never looked bad or broken. They went seven games, and you got the sense that they would have gamely gone seven more. They'll be back.
Meanwhile, a Capitals team that would have had much more to discuss had it been the one eliminated lives on — perhaps even gathering steam. Suddenly, arbitrarily, the organization has been anointed as "gritty." Suddenly, they're brilliant to have signed Joel Ward, Playoff Hero." Suddenly, all the pieces are falling into place; everything is going exactly as planned. (We're even getting lewd-sounding headlines like "Dale Hunter Snuck His Grizzly Style Into the Caps and Shocked Two Cities.") That's the power of a Game 7: Like a cresting wave, a few inches here and a few moments there make the difference between getting knocked down or being pulled along for the ride. It's not always pretty, but it sure is beautiful.
Lighting the Lamp: The Last Few Days' Sickest Snipes
We've already praised Claude Giroux's filthy first shift, but he wasn't the only player to visibly wrangle control of a game over the last several days. The Rangers' Brad Richards played like a man possessed on Monday night, and his go-ahead goal gave the Rangers a 2-1 lead over Ottawa and helped extend the series to seven. (Video includes bonus Mark Messier fist-pump action near the end.)
Also forcing a decisive Game 7 was Travis Zajac, who converted a beautiful pass from Ilya Kovalchuk just over five minutes into the extra session. Both Kovalchuk and Zajac finished the game with a goal and an assist, which was a relief for Devils fans. Although he's been avoiding questions about his health, Kovalchuk is widely assumed to be dealing with some sort of injury. Zajac, meanwhile, looks to be rebounding nicely from an injury of his own, a bad Achilles tendon that required surgery and kept him out of all but 15 regular-season games.
Piling on the Pylons: The Last Few Days' Worst Performers
It's safe to say that this year's playoffs has already featured some low points in NHL officiating — though I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a fanbase that hasn't felt grievously wronged, so at least the unfairness is fair! From blown calls to missed penalties to poor game management (and, later in the criminal justice system, unpredictable punishment) the league's crews have come under a significant amount of heat. Last night was no exception, with the NBC Sports broadcast team going so far as to suggest referee Eric Furlatt was being swayed by crowd noise on a big call late in the third period.3 Whether or not they were right to call him out like that — and the best arguments against were the ones I read here — it's all part of an uneasy climate that has formed around the officiating and portends some big storms down the road.
Taking It Coast-to-Coast: A Lap Around the League
- One of the more iconic Game 7 moments in any sport was 17 years ago: Patrick Ewing's missed finger roll in the closing seconds of the Knicks' 1995 series against the Indiana Pacers. If ever there was a moment that demonstrated both the promise and the finality of a Game 7, that was it. Even the basketball seemed to know it, kissing the rim and then pausing, pregnant with power and possibility, in midair before bouncing no good. Before tonight, when the Rangers will host the Senators, it was the last time Madison Square Garden played host to a seventh game.4 For all of the mythmaking that surrounds MSG, there haven't been all too many big moments there for quite some time now. The Knicks and Rangers have both struggled just to make the playoffs, let alone to finish high enough to earn home seeding … until now. "I'm not a believer in home ice in the playoffs," Rangers coach John Tortorella told Blueshirts United during the final week of the regular season. And this year, he's been right: Boston's Game 7 loss was just the most recent of a large number of home losses this round: Of the 46 first-round games that have been played, the home team has won only 17. But he added a point of clarification to his remarks. "Game 7," he continued. "That is when it's really, I think, an advantage."
- As teams continue to drop out of the playoffs, the rosters for the upcoming IIHF World Championships, which begin May 4, are starting to firm up. The current rosters can be viewed here.
- This week the NHL has been releasing the finalists for its various awards. They haven't all been named, and I'll do a full breakdown of the categories closer to the ceremony, but for now, here are the nominees, with my insta-pick in asterisks:
Calder (Rookie of the Year): Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, *Gabriel Landeskog,* Adam Henrique
Lady Byng (sportsmanship): Brian Campbell, Jordan Eberle, *Matt Moulson*
Selke (best two-way forward): David Backes, *Patrice Bergeron,* Pavel Datsyuk
GM of the Year: Doug Armstrong, *David Poile,* Dale Tallon
Masterton (overcoming adversity; dedication to hockey): Daniel Alfredsson, *Joffrey Lupul,* Max Pacioretty (wish Matt Cooke or Tommy Wingels had gotten a look, though!)
Vezina (best goalie): *Henrik Lundqvist,* Jonathan Quick, Pekka Rinne
Norris (best defenseman): Zdeno Chara, Erik Karlsson, *Shea Weber*
- In case there was any doubt that the Detroit Red Wings will be standing around the free agent market cooling themselves with cash fans, Mike Babcock recently said that he'll be more than happy to get on the phone on July 1 to recruit … and joked that he's got a lot of frequent flier miles. Enough to get to Nashville or New Jersey, I assume?
- While the Eastern Conference second-round matchups won't be set till the outcome of tonight's games, the Western teams sit idle, eyeing one another warily. The Blues announced that Jaroslav Halak will remain out at least through the first two games against the L.A. Kings (luckily, they have no slouch as backup). And I loved this piece on the Phoenix Coyotes and their head coach, Dave Tippett, by ESPN The Magazine's Seth Wickersham. ("Tippett and his assistants sit in folding chairs and huddle near two space heaters. The coach rubs his hands together, then opens his laptop, which rests on a tray table. This is Tippett's office. 'Not ideal,' he says.") One fun takeaway is how Tippett tracks his own "Chances for Helped" metric, which Wickersham calls a "guy-behind-the-guy-behind-the-guy stat."
- Jaromir Jagr's blog is the best blog.
- I have to say, the last 72 or so hours out of Vancouver have been pretty stunning. It began with GM Mike Gillis's press conference, in which, among other things, he criticized former Canuck Cody Hodgson ("I spent more time on Cody's issues than every other player combined on our team the last three years") and explained how the team sheltered him in games in order to help boost his trade value. As if that weren't enough drama for the time being, shortly thereafter Roberto Luongo casually told reporters that "I don't want to be one of those guys who is going to stand in the way of anything" (insert terrible "yeah, just like in Boston!" joke here) and that he would waive his no-trade clause if asked to by the team, which has ostensibly chosen to stick with the younger Cory Schneider. The question now becomes who would want to make a deal for Luongo, who is 33 and in the midst of a 12-year, $64 million contract with Vancouver. Tampa has the hole to fill, but not the cap space. Toronto's and Vancouver's GMs don't exactly get along. New Jersey's finances are too shaky. Detroit has the money, but not the pressing need. Chicago and Florida are two dark horses that could both be interested and willing to pay for the Italian Stallion. (I'm pulling for either Toronto, just for the fun factor, or Chicago, because I'd love to see Luongo, who has handled this whole thing admirably, go back and haunt his former team.)5
- Michael Farber's Sports Illustrated profile on L.A. Kings captain Dustin Brown includes a brutal anecdote about Sean Avery harassing him for not having a hot-enough wife … while they were teammates … which led me to Google his wife (she's great, shut up, Avery), which led me to this adorable video that I just thought I'd share. BABYBABYBABY.
Chirping Like a Chump: The Worst Mouthing Off
Going with the alternate heading for this category this week in honor of the lamest recent playoff microflap: the Florida Panthers president making fun of a Devils fan on Twitter by dissing her follower count. I mean, read that again: the Florida Panthers president making fun of a Devils fan on Twitter by dissing her follower count. It gets better: The whole situation began when Michael Yormark blamed … perhaps disingenuously! … "visiting fans" for abusing their plastic rat privileges. I can't even.
I should say that I actually don't begrudge Yormark the sentiments he expressed to @LaurenAshley07: "you have 70 followers. no one cares what you think." That's kind of run-of-the-mill Internet defensiveness, no? Let's be honest, there's a roughly 93 percent chance that any writer earnestly taking Yormark to task has also, at some point in the past week, day, or probably hour, shaken his or her head unrelatedly at one critical tweet or another and said, in self-consolation: "Whatever, this BonJoviFan69 guy has like 20 people following him. I shouldn't care what he thinks." (I know this is true because I've seen it happen in every press room I've been in, and also every day in my home office.) Still, Yormark was indeed stupid to actually thumb that mal mot out into the world … although he hasn't deleted it, which I kind of love.
This silly story at least has a happy ending: @LaurenAshley07 was hooked up with sick seats for Game 6 by the Devils, which she took full advantage of, tweeting from her seats a photo of Yormark (checking his BlackBerry, obviously) with a casual "Ohh hey." Sometimes the most effective comebacks are the simplest. (UPDATE: Yormark has invited @LaurenAshley07 and her dad down to his suite for Game 7. She's this year's Green Men! As for Yormark, he's Kris Jenner–esque in his ability to spin straw into PR/marketing gold. Maybe he got an intro through his brother.)
"Really, I don't have a choice."