As the third period started at the Verizon Center Friday night, things weren't looking good for the Washington Capitals. The score was 4-2 in favor of the Philadelphia Flyers and the Caps' star left winger, Alex Ovechkin, was held without a shot.
It seemed as if reality was finally setting in for the Caps, who stormed their way into the Number Three seed in the Eastern Conference by clinching the Southeast Division. They won 14 of 18 games to end the regular season, climbing out of the Eastern Conference basement and gaining home-ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs. Everyone knows, though, that the playoffs are a whole different animal.
The Caps youth and playoff inexperience seemed to be showing. Ovechkin looked nervous and flat on the ice, Christobal Huet appeared shaky and phased after allowing four Philadelphia goals. Both players were playing in their very first playoff game.
However, just 1:50 into the period, a blend of the old and new sparked a thunderous comeback. League and playoff veteran Sergei Fedorov gained possession of the puck in front of the Flyers net, and left a soft backhanded pass for Mike Green to slap into the net over a sprawling Martin Biron.
It was Green's very first playoff goal. It didn't take long for the Caps to tie up the game during a power play 6:26 into the period, with Mike Green blasting the puck past Biron with the assist of a nice pass by Alex Ovechkin.
All of a sudden, the Caps were right back in the game with all of the momentum going their way. Apparently, Ovechkin's assist is just what he needed as he came alive and made an amazing individual play to score the game winner 15:28 into the period.
Ovechkin tipped the puck into the air onto the stick of Flyers defenseman Lasse Kukkonen only to lift his stick, absolutely robbing him of the puck. He waited for Biron to make his move, and roofed the puck over him. Ovechkin was awake and shook off the jitters as the crowd fully acknowledged this as they chanted MVP, MVP, MVP!
I am fully aware that it was only Game 1 of the series, but this single game is a great preview of what Caps fans have to look forward to for years to come. This team is no longer a one-trick pony, it is a very complete team that is only becoming stronger with every game they play.
The acquisition of veterans this season such as Viktor Kozlov, Michael Nylander, and Sergei Fedorov is just what the team needed to help bring together and develop young talents including Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Alexander Semin.
These players have plenty of raw skill and ability, and the addition of wisdom and leadership has helped mold these players into a complete package.
The absolute steal in acquiring Christobal Huet from the Montreal Canadiens was the final piece to the puzzle, by gaining a new Franchise goaltender to replace the aging Olaf Kolzig. There is plenty of upside to this team.
Most likely, the Capitals will not win the Cup this year. They will be very fortunate to win a round or two, but fans have to be incredibly excited to see this team playing at this level, as well as the team chemistry that has developed in the last month and a half.
The key for the Capitals will be to hold on to this formula as long as they can. Ovechkin is locked up for 13 years, but the key will be holding onto the components of the team that have proved to be gelling so well.
Sergei Fedorov will be an unrestricted free agent next year. It would be highly beneficial for the Caps to sign him for at least another year and another Cup run. Extensions for Huet and Green would also be wise, as they will become restricted free agents by next season.
Donald Brashear and Viktor Kozlov have deals until they become unrestricted free agents in the 2009-2010 season. If they keep up with their current performances, it would be wise to lock them up for future seasons as well.
If the end of the season and the current playoff run has taught us anything, it is that Washington will be a serious contender next season and possibly seasons to come. The veteran players are meshing so well with the young talent, teaching them composure, teamwork, work ethic, and at the same time feeding off of the energy and exuberance of a young team that is experiencing success for the first time.
The best player in the NHL now has a supporting cast, one that can handle the load in the rare occasions when Ovechkin struggles or is kept in check. Look out Eastern Conference, look out NHL. The Capitals are only getting better.
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