Wednesday, April 29, 2009 what?

Much will be made over the next few days about how the Penguins have abused the Caps in playoff settings over the years. Since the first time the teams met in the playoffs in 1991, the Penguins have compiled a a 6-1 series edge as the teams head into the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

But these two teams have met only once in the second round, that being the first meeting, in 1991. Washington won the first game of the series, 4-2. However, Pittsburgh stormed back to win the next four games.

They then went on to win their first Stanley Cup.

Time for a change.

"You know, there's a rule in sports...

...don't do anything great if you can't handle the congratulations."

Photo by Len Redkoles/Getty Images

My God!...He's Talking About Us!!

Bloggers, that is.

David Brooks is an opinion columnist with the New York Times. He was honored at The Week's "Sixth Annual Opinion Awards." But it was this quote from Brooks that stopped us cold...

“I used to have all sorts of human drives, the need for food, for water for sex. Now I have one drive: the need for column ideas."

We reckon he could have been talking about any hockey blogger you can think of.

In Praise of Blue

When we were younger, we’d have been inclined to say, “ah, f*** ‘em…we win, you lose. Go back to New York.”

But after seeing a lot of playoff hockey over the years, we stood there at the end during watching the handshakes, silently appreciating the effort on the part of the New York Rangers. The Rangers are an offense-challenged team that doesn’t have a finisher worthy of the name. They don’t have a real stopper on defense, although Marc Staal could grow into that role one day. They have some underachievers and guys who don’t look like they fit.

But they have some guys on that team – and behind the bench, for that matter – who are nothing short of warriors.

Chris Drury, who couldn’t even shake hands with his Capital opponents afterward because of a broken hand suffered in a playoff-clinching win against the Flyers almost three weeks ago, was the epitome of a “leave it on the ice” approach to Game 7. He still managed to win five of eight draws and register a couple of hits, despite playing more or less one handed.

Sean Avery was booed every time he touched the puck. He deserved it for some of the antics he perpetrated in this series. But apart from the “Side Show Sean” persona, he was the best Ranger on the ice last night not wearing goalie pads. Avery played with a singular energy – within the rules, if at times right up to the edge of them – and was for long stretches the only Ranger who was asserting himself on offense.

Brandon Dubinsky could have been a “Plumber.” We mean that as a compliment to the young forward. He would have fit right in with that lunch pail bunch for the Caps in the 1980's. A player of somewhat limited offensive skills, he makes the most of what talents he has – on display last night – to rattle, harass, hound, and otherwise make a nuisance of himself to the other team. If he was a Cap, fans would adore this guy.

Ryan Callahan, another player of somewhat limited offensive skill, was just about the hardest working guy on the ice for the Rangers in most of the games of this series. It was his sheer hustle to get into a play that afforded him the opportunity to score the game’s only goal in Game 2, and last night he was one of the Rangers who were checking the Caps all over their own zone, threatening to skate the Caps right out of the rink in the first 40 minutes.

Henrik Lundqvist had the unimaginable pressure of being the one Ranger who could not have a bad minute, let alone game, in this series. On a team that would struggle to score more than two goals a game in this series (the Rangers only did it twice), Lundqvist had to be as close to perfect as a goaltender gets. That he wasn’t, in the end, is not a reflection of his skill or cool determination in this series as much as it shines a light of some other Ranger deficiencies.

When we looked at this series before it began, we thought it would turn on the fact that Lundqvist would not have enough sub-three goal games against the high-octane Caps offense to win the series. The irony is that Lundqvist would lose the ultimate game while providing the Rangers that sub-three-goals-against effort. No goalie is without holes, and the Caps managed to find one often enough to win the series, but absent the play of Lundqvist, this series is probably over before last weekend arrives.

John Tortorella is an abrasive, sour, prickly cuss who no one in the media probably ever wants to ask a question of after a loss. He also has lousy aim with a water bottle. But he was a fantastic bench coach in this series, getting the absolute maximum out of a flawed array of talent. And while he was trying to find the right buttons to push as the Caps were crawling out of a 3-1 deficit in games, Tortorella was, if not pleasant in post game interviews, graceful in a gruff way, if such a thing can be said. His comments about his team last night in the aftermath of the Ranger loss hit all the appropriate grace notes, and none of them seemed forced or false. He really does seem to have an affection for a lot of those players, many of whom are a reflection of a “junkyard dog” approach to the game that he prefers to coach. When he commented that “we checked our ass off,” you could almost hear his voice cracking in disappointment that his boys didn’t quite have that last measure to pull the game out of the fire, but in true appreciation of the effort they gave.

It’s hard to muster a real hate for the Rangers. The first 40 minutes of the game they played last night were a sight to behold, something any fan of the sport who has watched any measure of playoff hockey can appreciate for its “old school” values of hard work and relentlessness. It says something about the Capitals that they were able to dig down in the last 20 minutes and find what it took to win. And in that respect, the Capitals earned their victory.

The Rangers made them earn it.

CAPS WIN! CAPS WIN!! CAPS WIN!!! Game 7: Caps 2 - Rangers 1

The old man had one left in him, after all.

With the clock ticking down to midnight on the Caps’ season, Sergei Fedorov snapped a shot over the left shoulder of New York Ranger goalie Henrik Lundqvist and into the net, propelling the Capitals to a 2-1 win in the deciding Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal. The digits 2 and 1 figured heavily in this oddly entertaining game…

21 – the number of years since a team – any pro sports team – has won a Game 7 in Washington (yes, including Landover, MD).

21 – the age of the winning goaltender, Semyon Varlamov, who turned that number just yesterday.

2 – the second shot of the game, by Nik Antropov, on a breakaway that Varlamov stuffed. If that shot goes in – 42 seconds into the game – the result might have been very different.

2 – the number of shots the Caps registered in the first period, when they were almost run out of their own building.

1 – the number of shots on goal registered by the Rangers in the third period, when the Caps almost ran them out of the building.

1 – minor penalty taken by the Caps (Mike Green)

2 – minor penalties taken by the Rangers (Nik Antropov, Dan Girardi)

Some other stuff…

- We noted above that the clock was ticking down to midnight on the Caps’ season when Fedorov scored the game winner. Why? In the last three instances in which the Caps were eliminated from the playoffs, it happened in overtime: 2008 to Philadelphia, 2003 to Tampa Bay, and 2001 to Pittsburgh. We weren’t terribly enthusiastic about this one heading to extra time.

- This game completed the symmetry started in Game 4 – a 2-1 win by the Rangers that featured an odd, multi-deflection goal to get the Rangers on the board. This time, it was Nicklas Backstrom leaving the puck for Alexander Semin, who tried to curl the puck around defenseman Dan Girardi, but the Ranger maintained good position. Semin managed to get a shot off, but it appear to deflect off the stick of Ryan Callahan, which served to deaden the puck as it popped into the air. It floated past Girardi and goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who looked to have difficulty picking up the biscuit as it floated in the air.

- John Tortorella said of his team in the post-game, “we checked our ass off.” Did they ever. Credit is due the Rangers, who could have just packed it in after the dominating performances the Caps laid on them in games five and six. But to a man, they hounded the Caps in their end of the ice, especially in the second period, when the frustration at their inability to get the puck past their own blue line threatened to turn the crowd against them. It was one of the most dominating checking performances under the Verizon Center roof this season.

- Before the game, Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said of Chris Clark, “"There's a difference between being fresh and being rusty -- if [Clark] plays. Anybody who is put into a Game 7, they're not feeling any rust. They're feeling energy. They're feeling excitement like the rest of us." Well, Clark’s hands were rusty. He had a couple of glorious chances to pot a goal, including one where he had a virtually empty net staring at him, and he couldn’t get the hands to work quite quickly enough.

- If the absence of Blair Betts for the Rangers was to be felt most keenly on the power play, then that was a non factor. The Caps had two power plays and a total of 3:28 in ice time. In a sense, it was old-tyme hockey – the refs weren’t calling much of anything.

- That Fedorov game-winner?...”high glove.” In fairness to Lundqvist, though, he had to be aware of who it was barreling toward the net while Fedorov was settling into the right wing faceoff circle to take the game-winner… Alex Ovechkin.

- Ranger fans kept waiting for it, but Scott Gomez never really showed up in this series. Tonight… no points, one shot on goal, and he lost nine of 15 draws.

- On the other hand, say what you want, but when Sean Avery is not a flaming a**hole, he is a helluva hockey player. He was just about the only Ranger who consistently and assertively took the puck to the net. He had no support for his efforts. An assist, six shot attempts, four hits, and he even won both the draws he took, pretty much by just bull rushing Boyd Gordon and David Steckel, neither of whom is a slouch in the circle.

- John Erskine might not give Caps fans a warm and comfy feeling on the blue line on some nights, but it is hard to argue with the guy’s compete level.

- Caps fans might never say it out loud, but we’ll bet they were thinking it in the first two periods – the Caps were playing scared. Guys were getting rid of the puck as soon as it hit their sticks, and they spent 40 minutes chasing the Rangers all around the Caps’ zone to no good end.

- In the post-game radio show, Brooks Laich said that Chris Clark said something to the effect of, “win 20 minutes, win a series.” That was the last 20 minutes in a nutshell. The Caps outshot the Rangers, 13-1. They out-hit the Rangers, 13-6. They won nine of 17 draws. They had seven blocked shots to four for the Rangers.

- Henrik Lunqvist had a two-headed game. One could look at his saving 22 of 24 shots and conclude that he found his game after a couple of relatively poor ones. On the other hand, the Caps did not pound him on the glove side the way they did in games five and six. It’s worth repeating that the Fedorov game-winner was over his glove hand. As things turned out, 13 of the Caps’ 19 goals were scored to that side.

- The Rangers had the look of a team that had expended so much effort in the first 40 minutes that their tanks ran dry in the third. They had no shots on goal in the last 10:31 and could not get out of their own end in the last 90 seconds in an effort to pull Lundqvist for an extra attacker.

- Seven goals in six games. If you’re looking for a frame of reference for that performance by young Mr. Varlamov in goal, the 1998 playoff run is an interesting comparison. In the four series that spring, Olaf Kolzig’s best was in allowing seven goals in five games against Ottawa, in an era when goals were much harder to come by. A 1.17, .952 set of numbers is quite an inaugural for Varlamov. Consider that in that spring 11 years ago, Kolzig’s numbers were 1.95, .941.

- Of 18 skaters for the Caps, 16 registered hits (Alexander Semin and Tom Poti held off that column of the score sheet).

- Now, here’s an odd one. Number of hits registered by Paul Mara in the series for the Rangers… four. The number for the Caps’ Tomas Fleischmann… four.

- Alex Ovechkin missed 21 shots in the series. No Ranger had that many shots on goal (Ryan Callahan had 19).

Well, now it’s Pittsburgh for the second round, thanks to some late game heroics by Carolina in defeating New Jersey in their Game 7. Pittsburgh presents an entirely different set of challenges – an opportunities – than did the Rangers, but that’s a conversation for another day. Tonight was a case of a lesson learned from last year, and the lesson appears to have been titled, "Resiliency."

Well done, guys!

photos: Len Redkoles/Getty Images