|ESPN.com: NHL Playoffs 2009||[Print without images]|
WASHINGTON -- Ted Leonsis smiled from ear to ear outside the Washington Capitals' dressing room.
Ten years after buying the NHL club, the Capitals owner finally has a playoff series victory under his belt.
"I'm not a virgin anymore!" said Leonsis.
Neither is Alexander Ovechkin. The superstar winger survived a stressful and dramatic seven-game series to earn his first second-round birth in his second try. Up next? Ho-hum, just Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Pittsburgh Penguins. No interest in that series at all.
"Looks like we're playing Pittsburgh," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said moments after Carolina's dramatic 4-3 win in New Jersey. "Get ready for the circus."
Before the circus, however, was the comeback.
Down 3-1 to the seventh-seeded New York Rangers, the second-seeded Capitals showed their resilience in reeling off three consecutive wins. And they had better have. They needed to win this season. No more building, no more learning. It was time to win.
"You can't just have good seasons. You need to do something in the playoffs," said a jubilant George McPhee, the team's GM and architect. "We really needed this. The way our community has embraced this team and what's going on in this marketplace is unbelievable. I never believed it could be this good.
"To have the kind of buzz that's around this team, I thought that could only come if we won a Cup, but this market has really responded. It feels great to see what's going on here."
The fans at Verizon Center lifted their team in the third period. Even the more veteran observers of the game were awed at how loud the place got as the crowd cheered on its team with the score tied at 1 in the third period. Bring your earplugs, Penguins.
"My ears are still ringing," said captain Chris Clark, who returned in Game 7 after missing three months with a wrist injury. "It was like going to a rock concert. It was awesome. It built up and built up..."
...until some old graybeard that was somewhat of a forgotten man on this team came roaring down the right wing like it was 1999 (cue the Prince music) and rifled a wrist shot top corner on Henrik Lundqvist's glove side (there again).
It was 2-1 Caps with 4:59 left in the game and bedlam on the ice as Ovechkin nearly put Sergei Fedorov through the boards while celebrating. The Caps could breathe again.
"It's been a while since I scored liked that," Fedorov said.
When McPhee picked Fedorov up at last season's trade deadline, the original thought was he'd be a rental player to help get the Caps into the playoffs. Then McPhee saw enough of him to bring him back for another season.
"When we watched him last year before we traded for him, we thought he could still play and do things we didn't have -- control the play, be smart at both ends of the rink," said the Caps GM. "He had such a positive impact on the team, we thought we had to keep him. It's nice when you make a trade and he turns out to be more than a rental. He may be the most intelligent player that I've seen. For every inch of the ice, he has two or three options on what he's going to do. It's amazing how situations seem to follow a great player."
In many ways, Fedorov was a fitting hero on this night. It was the young Fedorov who felt so much pressure as a star on some of those Detroit teams that struggled to win in the playoffs before finally getting over the hump. He said he spoke about his experience with "the Russians" in the Caps' lineup this week.
But for 40 minutes Tuesday night, it appeared those chats were not getting the desired results. The Caps looked nervous and tentative and were lucky to be tied at 1 heading into the third period.
"We were terrible for the first two periods," said veteran Caps blueliner Brian Pothier.
Added McPhee: "I thought our team played really well the entire series but for the first two periods tonight."
The Rangers deserve tremendous credit. They played a near-perfect road game as an underdog in the enemy building. But as the case has been all season long for the Blueshirts, they couldn't muster enough offense.
"We played our best game of the series and [it] still wasn't good enough," said Rangers coach John Tortorella. "I appreciate how hard they worked tonight."
There will be lots of talk that this was the first Rangers team in franchise history to cough up a 3-1 series lead, but there should also be a reality check. Their goalie stole three games, and that's the only reason this series went seven. And in that Game 7, they played with heart and nearly stole the last one they needed.
"We should be proud of the way we responded in Game 7," said Lundqvist.
But it was the other goalie who got mugged by teammates at the buzzer. Simeon Varlamov won four of six starts in the series while allowing only seven goals, looking nothing like a kid who turned 21 on Monday. With his team on the ropes early in Game 7, he looked as cool as ice as he stopped Nik Antropov on a breakaway, among several impressive saves he made in the game.
This is indeed a dangerous team if they have real goaltending.
"He is tremendously poised," said Boudreau. "I still haven't talked to him since Game 1. I don't want to screw him up, so I am leaving him alone. With the way they were coming for the first two periods, for him to have the poise that he did was tremendous. I don't know what his stomach was doing, but he seemed really calm up there."
That poise will be seriously tested in a few days. Nobody's confusing the Rangers with the Penguins. Crosby and Co. can finish their chances.
But enough about Round 2. Let's take a second to exhale after Round 1. The Caps were nearly down-and-out and showed a lot in coming back to win.
They're on the board now. Ovechkin and Co. have really done something in the playoffs. Now comes the real fun.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.