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