Rock The Red: Washington Is Now The Caps' Town

K. D. James@KDamanJCorrespondent IOctober 7, 2009

Feel it comin’ in the air/

And the screams from everywhere/

I’m addicted to the thrill/

It’s a dangerous love affair.


Can’t be scared when it goes down/

Gotta problem, tell me now/

Only thing that's on my mind/

Is who’s gonna run this town tonight?

Rihanna’s cute, Bajan lilt on the hook of Jay-Z’s song may have you in a frenzy, but it's really the young Washington Capitals who run this town.

Yes, that’s no misprint—hockey and the Caps own Washington, D.C. 

In title-starved Washington, with a once-proud pro football team at sea with Jack Shepherd and Gilligan; a pro basketball team that can only go as far as their enigmatic, oft-injured star; and a pro baseball team still wet behind the ears and mired in ineptitude, it’s only natural to flock towards the city's thriving pro hockey team.

With a couple seasons of success, the team—orchestrated by an affable, fan-friendly owner (Ted Leonsis); a shrewd, no-nonsense general manager (George McPhee); a fast-paced tactician of a head coach (Bruce Boudreau); a super nova superstar (Alex Ovechkin) and above-average complementary players in Niklas Bäckström, Alexander Semin, Mike Green, to name a few—has developed the right formula to win often, gain a Stanley Cup in the near future and earn the hearts of many fans for some time to come. 

The team started an unfortunate, but necessary rebuilding process four years ago, when former stars such as Jaromir Jagr and Robert Lang performed poorly despite lucrative contracts. 

By attempting to buy a Stanley Cup instead of winning one the harder way (good draft picks and solid minor league system, as well as a few free agent pick-ups, sensible trades), the personable and extremely smart Leonsis (a tech savvy businessman) had no logical choice other than to let most of those stagnant players go. 

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That was Phase I.

Even more humbling, Leonsis had to present season-ticket holders and other loyal Cap fans with a slow, restructuring project (Phase II). That led to several poorly populated home games, as the owner watched his team transition from bad to worse, not even resembling a 1998 roster that went to the Stanley Cup finals.

Yet, through trial and error, good things did come to those who waited for a better outcome, starting with the 2004 NHL Draft. Because of having the worse record the year before, they landed the first overall pick and the team found a gem of a left-winged forward in Alexander Ovechkin. 

Was this the third and final phase?

From Russia with love, Ovechkin has accumulated several YouTube-worthy plays over a little bit of time. Yet, a remarkable sequence sticks out, the one that first put him in the  cross-hairs of ESPN and Internet sensation. The unfortunate victims then were the Phoenix Coyotes at erstwhile America West Arena.

On January 16, 2006, Ovechkin scored a mind-numbing goal on his back, knocked down by a defender, his body twisted on ice, barely able to hold his glove in place to tap the puck past goalie Brian Boucher.

Former Coyotes coach and NHL legend Wayne Gretzky stood in the opposite team’s players box on that day of the ebullient Russian's jaw-dropping feat, marveling at one of the best goals he had ever witnessed (excluding The Great One's own cache of phenomenal goals, sure).

And the rest is history, as the Moscow Dynamo has scored over 215 goals, recorded eight career hat tricks and achieved first-team NHL All-Star status four times already in his budding, illustrious career. Already, Ovechkin has won the 2005-'06 Rookie of the Year award (Calder Memorial Trophy; the 2004-’05 season was locked out), two straight MVP awards (Hart Trophy), two goal-scoring titles (Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy) and one point-scoring title (Art Ross Trophy). The only other significant piece of hardware that eludes him is the big one, the Stanley Cup. 

At first, Ovechkin solely embraced Herculean efforts, and tried to win with little to no help. Due to a series of losing seasons, however, Alexander the Great has recently gotten a considerable amount of help in the form of draft/minor league acquisitions Bäckström (88 points, 66 assists in 2008-09 season), Norris Trophy finalist/defenseman Green (72 points) and Semin (79).

The real steal for the team, though, is Boudreau, who replaced the preceding coach Glen Hanlon on Thanksgiving Day 2007. From that November to now, the Toronto native and minor-league winning coach has been the catalyst for a team with a penchant for scoring (third in the league last year in goals, 272, and second in power-play goal percentage, 25.2%). Furthermore, the team has won 89 of its 146 regular season games with "Bouds" at the helm, over 40 of them at home in Verizon Center. 

Because of the newly and positively intensified efforts, the 2008 Jack Adams Award winner (best coach) carved an identity extremely different from the traditionally staid, defensive-minded playing style of the old Caps, who ruled the roost at the now-defunct, saddle-domed Capital Centre in Maryland decades ago. 

In addition, the team discovered another bright spot during the postseason in young goaltender Semyon Varlamov. Known as Varly for short, the 21-year-old Russian net-minder showed promise and became a hero in April and May of 2009, as Boudreau entrusted him over the unpredictable, high-priced veteran José Theodore, who has struggled before with different teams.

This season, the coach is giving both goalies equal time between the pipes, although Boudreau has pegged Theodore as starter. Whether Theodore or Varlamov remains in net as starter, either will have to be solid throughout—an essential piece in order to raise the sport's Holy Grail one day.

Salary cap restraints forced the team to lose a couple of significant players, especially former Detroit Red Wings star Sergei Federov in the offseason. Nevertheless, in that same period, the front office obtained reasonable substitutes: net-crashing veteran Mike Knuble from the Philadelphia Flyers and center Brendan Morrison (Vancouver Canucks).

The current team seems to have shaken off last May’s cobwebs from a gut-wrenching denouement by the Pittsburgh Penguins (a shocking 6-2 loss) in the Eastern Conference semifinals—with pretty convincing victories over last year's Eastern Conference leader Boston, 4-1 in Boston, and 6-4, over 11-time Cup champion Toronto Maple Leafs, at home last week.

Ovechkin and up-and-coming left wing Brooks Laich scored two goals a piece in the season opener in lightning-fast fashion, as the predominant New England crowd remained awestruck during most of the game.

Having scored 65 goals two years ago, followed by 56 last season, could Ovechkin possibly reach 70 this year? 75? Many believe it's inevitable.

The highly anticipated first game at Verizon, i.e. “The Phone Booth,” proved to be a total crowd pleaser: the Caps, in their fashionable home red sweaters, skated so quickly and gracefully they looked like cardinals flying north to south. On several occasions, they blazed past the Leafs with such panache that they could have easily rendered Usain Bolt's preternatural velocity pedestrian.

Even though the Capitals have such lofty expectations, aspiring to be mentioned in the same breath as the elite teams in National Hockey League history, they still seem to be at least one center forward and/or one bruising defenseman short of being on the same level as last year's champs, the arch-rival Penguins.  

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