“We put this plan together and I’ve been telling people to be patient and we’ll wake up one morning and we’re going to have a good team. And I think that morning is tomorrow morning. It feels great to be able to deliver something right now, because we’ve been telling people it’s going to happen. But there are a lot of future promises. It’s nice to be able to stand here and say, ‘We just won the division. It feels great.”
— Caps GM George McPhee after the Caps completed their improbable comeback to claim the Southeast Division championship with a 3-1 win over Florida at Verizon Center on Saturday night.
This one felt good, didn’t it? But the best part of the whole thing is the promise of even better feelings and bigger wins ahead, this spring and in the springs immediately in front of us. The Capitals are young, strong, hungry and deep, and they’re built (and still being built) to compete for the Cup beyond this season.
I’m happy for the fans today. They’ve always supported this team when it wins, and in the last couple of months they’ve realized what a special bunch this team is. I’m even happier for the fans who stayed with the team during these last several lean years. For a rebuild to be successful, patience is required. All the way from the ownership down to the fans.
I’m happy for Ted Leonsis and Dick Patrick and the rest of the ownership group, happy that they had the patience to see this all the way through after McPhee and Co. smartly and strategically euthanized that 2003-04 team.
I’m happy for George, for director of amateur scouting Ross Mahoney and all the Caps’ cagey pro scouts and the hockey ops department. Every time a player is drafted and every time a trade is made, they endure a barrage of criticism and it’s nice to see so many of their hand-picked talents playing a big part in this team’s success.
I’m thrilled for Bruce Boudreau (a guy who earned and deserved the chance he finally got this year) and his coaching staff of Dave Prior, Jay Leach, Dean Evason and Blaine Forsythe, a good bunch of guys who continually made sure the Caps were ready for every challenge they’ve faced. To me, it’s these guys and the players (of course) who deserve the credit for this team’s amazing run during which they dropped consecutive regulation games only once in a 61-game stretch. Virtually every setback was followed by an immediate return to form.
And it had to be. In the end, it turned out that the Caps’ margin for error was a single point.
Mostly, I feel good for the players. Eighty-two games makes for a long season. When the first quarter of the season goes as poorly as it went for this year’s model of the Caps, it’s easy to mail it in the rest of the way. It happens all too often in pro sports. A lot of people believed this was a pretty good team back in September and October and these guys went out and proved those people right. Many of them were maligned pretty hard in all varieties of media along the way by people who’ve never played the game, or have never played it anywhere near a pro level. But they kept working, meshing, getting better. And today you can go up and down the roster and point to contributions made by each of them.
Finally, this should put to rest any of the lame banter about Alex Ovechkin not being a worthy Hart Trophy candidate unless the Caps made the playoffs. As longtime readers of this blog and listeners of our podcasts know, I believe the Boston Globe’s Kevin Paul Dupont to be one of the best hockey writers of our era.
Here’s a snippet from his column this morning:
OVECHKIN IS ALL HART
Members of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association, including your faithful scribe, will turn in award ballots this week, and if Alexander Ovechkin isn’t a unanimous choice for the Hart (MVP), then someone will have a lot of ‘splainin’ to do.
A.O. hammered in two more goals Thursday night, bumping his league lead to 65, and moving ahead of Luc Robitaille as the all-time leader for most goals (one season) by a left winger. It’s not only that the Capitals star scores a lot of goals (now 163 in only three years), but he scores them with an energy and verve that make him, unquestionably, the greatest entertainment attraction in the game today.
Like Bobby Orr of old, and Brett Hull, Denis Savard, and Pavel Bure of not so old, Ovechkin doesn’t allow the viewer to stop watching. Even if he isn’t on the ice, the anticipation of his next shift, and maybe his next running leap into the glass after he scores, is enough to keep the audience engaged.
Sidney Crosby, as he good as he is, doesn’t do that. Crosby’s fellow Penguin, and superb talent, Evgeni Malkin, doesn’t do that. They both may get there someday soon (Malkin is my bet there to get there first). But for now, there is only one true sensational player in today’s game, and it’s the 22-year-old Ovechkin. Makes one wish the moniker “Magical Muscovite” hadn’t been dispensed (see: Sergei Samsonov) a decade ago.
Now, for the nitpickers, it’s true, the Hart Trophy is not awarded to the most exciting or sensational player. It goes to the player who is “adjudged to be the most valuable to his team.”
Well, you know what? In today’s game, with how difficult it remains to score, and how overcoached and tightly played the games are, a lot of guys can be considered under that lone standard. Ovechkin still wins on that alone, for how he carried the Capitals all year and especially down the stretch.
He’s all of “most valuable,” with the sensation and entertainment factors sort of just added value.
Anyone suggesting the Caps would have to make the playoffs in order for Alex Ovechkin to qualify for the Hart Trophy must be working on an alternative, attention-seeking agenda. This year, there is The Big O and then everyone else, the runners-up featuring a most-worthy Alex Kovalev of Montreal.
The NHL’s force-feed focus on all Sidney Crosby all the time and Pierre McGuire‘s relentless pandering and cheerleading over the air are going to create a backlash against the remarkable 20-year-old center, mark our words.
So yes, last night was special. And today is a great day to be a Caps fan. But even better days are still ahead. Enjoy the ride.