For Cap­i­tals, a cau­tious — and aus­pi­cious — open­ing night at Ver­i­zon Cen­ter

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - John Fe­in­stein sports@wash­post.com For more by John Fe­in­stein, visit wash­ing­ton­post.com/fe­in­stein.

The prob­lem with open­ing night, es­pe­cially a hockey sea­son’s open­ing night, is that it can’t pos­si­bly live up to the hype.

Nowhere is that more true than in a town where the base­ball team has just fin­ished im­plod­ing and the football team is ready to throw it­self a pa­rade for start­ing the sea­son 2-2. Throw in the fact that theWash­ing­ton Cap­i­tals failed to win a Stan­ley Cup in their first 40 sea­sons, and it is easy to un­der­stand why the usual sell­out crowd that found its way to Ver­i­zon Cen­ter on Satur­day night was about ready to ex­plode when the puck fi­nally dropped.

They had to sit through the rit­ual in­tro­duc­tion of just about ev­ery per­son em­ployed by the Cap­i­tals— in or out of uni­form— and re­plays of— or so it seemed— ev­ery goal the Caps scored last sea­son.

When the game did fi­nally be­gin, it looked as if the Caps were still wal­low­ing in the pregame hype. It took less than nine min­utes for the first, “WAKE UP!” to come out of the 400 level, and for a while, the Caps made theNewJerseyDevils look like a rea­son­ably good hockey team.

Which they aren’t. Once one of hockey’s best fran­chises— three Stan­ley Cups be­tween 1995 and 2003 and a trip to the fi­nals as re­cently as three years ago— the Devils are start­ing over this sea­son: new­gen­eral man­ager; new­coach and lots of new play­ers. A year ago they fin­ished 13th in the Eastern Con­fer­ence— 23 points be­hind the Caps in the fi­nal stand­ings. The Caps ex­pect to be bet­ter this sea­son; the Devils ex­pect to be worse. The high­light of their sea­son will come in Fe­bru­ary, when they spend four days— se­ri­ously, four days— hon­or­ingMartin Brodeur for his 21 bril­liant sea­sons as their goalie.

The Caps are hop­ing their high­light mo­ment won’t come un­til late spring. Last spring ended with yet another near-miss in the play­offs, when they led the NewYork Rangers three games to one in the Eastern Con­fer­ence semi­fi­nals be­fore los­ing the se­ries in overtime in Game 7. As ET might say, “Ouch.” There are no real ouch mo­ments in hockey in Oc­to­ber— just an­tic­i­pa­tion. With the off­sea­son ac­qui­si­tions of T. J. Oshie and Justin Wil­liams, along with BradenHoltby’s emer­gence last sea­son as one of the league’s best and most durable goalies, there is plenty of rea­son to be­lieve this sea­son might be dif­fer­ent for the Caps than the first 40.

Of course, that’s eas­ier said than done. The Rangers, last spring’s tor­men­tor, are al­ready 3-0, and their first two wins were on the road— on open­ing night against the Stan­ley Cup cham­pion Chicago Black­hawks and Fri­day night in Colum­bus. There are plenty of teams in the East that be­lieve they can play into June, which is another rea­son a 5-3 open­ing night win is noth­ing more, as the play­ers like to say, than, “two points we needed.”

“We weren’t very good in that first pe­riod,” said Brooks Or­pik, who not only played but scored his first goal as a Cap­i­tal— and the 14th of his 13-year ca­reer— to give the Caps a brief 2-0 lead in the first. “Our best player was prob­a­bly [Holtby]. He also bailed us out with that save in the sec­ond pe­riod.”

Holtby’s bail-out save came with the score still tied at 2 late in the sec­ond pe­riod right af­ter the Caps had whiffed on a five-on­three ad­van­tage that had lasted for 1 minute 38 sec­onds. The Devils cleared the puck, and AdamHen­rique, one of the Devils’ fewle­git­i­mate goal scor­ers, burst in alone onHoltby. ButHoltby turned him left and forced him into a weak shot that he saved easily.

“That would have been a mo­men­tum-changer there,” said Jason Chimera, who ‘scored,’ the first goal of the sea­son af­ter his at­tempted pass to Justin Wil­liams de­flected off the stick of Devils de­fense­man Jordin Tootoo, whose main hockey skill is fight­ing, and into the Devils net.

“I aimed it for his [ Tootoo’s] stick,” Chimera joked.

There was lots of jok­ing and smiles in the Caps’ locker room, even though, as Or­pik said, “We could use a day to work on some things.”

They will get that day— three in fact. The NHL sched­ule­mak­ers ap­pear to want Washington to get off to a fast start. The Caps’ first four games are at home— three against teams that failed to make the play­offs last sea­son. As if that wasn’t enough, the Devils, who could be hockey’s worst team this sea­son, played on Fri­day night, mean­ing they started backup goalieKeith Kin­caid and clearly had tired legs in the third pe­riod when the Caps scored three times to break what had been a 2-2 tie.

The game’s most im­por­tant goal, the one that puts the Caps in front for good, was scored by Alex Ovechkin. Which is ex­actly the way the Caps’ script writ­ers would want the story writ­ten. Just when it was be­gin­ning to look like no one was go­ing to score again un­til three-on-three overtime or the shootout, Ovechkin made one of his trade­mark bursts down the left side, left hap­lessNewJersey de­fender JohnMoore grasp­ing at air and flipped the puck from his back­hand to his fore­hand and past Kin­caid at 6:33 of the third pe­riod.

Game, set, match as it turned out.

“Our line hadn’t been very good for two pe­ri­ods,” Ovechkin said. “I had a chance there and was glad to make a play.” He smiled. “I guess we needed it.”

They needed it and, as it turned out, they needed the power-play goal they scored six min­utes later, when the hap­lessMoore went down to block an Ovechkin shot and the puck slid right back to the Caps’ cap­tain. He quickly found Mar­cus Jo­hans­son for the in­sur­ance goal the Caps would need later. “I shot it into him [Moore] and it came right back to me,” Ovechkin said with a shrug. “I’ll take it.”

The Caps will take the win and the two points along with the un­der­stand­ing that the weather will turn very cold and then warm again be­fore the games that mat­ter most be­gin.

A hockey sea­son is a lot like open­ing night, es­pe­cially if you be­lieve you have a good team. Lots of an­tic­i­pa­tion. Lots of wait­ing. The reg­u­lar sea­son games mat­ter, but no one re­mem­bers them once some­one skates around a rink in June hold­ing the Stan­ley Cup. In the last 13 sea­sons only two teams have won the Pres­i­dent’s Tro­phy and the Stan­ley Cup.

The Caps have a Pres­i­dent’s Tro­phy ban­ner— from 2010— hang­ing in the Ver­i­zon Cen­ter rafters. It is hard to even find un­less you look for it care­fully. The ban­ner they want, the one that will stand out in those rafters for­ever, is still a long way away. Open­ing night is only a be­gin­ning. At least, for the Caps, this one was a good one.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.