All day I kept convincing myself that the key to tonight's game was to keep everything in perspective. Yes, the Capitals were lucky to escape Tuesday night's tilt with Detroit with a win; yes, they were facing the team that knocked them out of the playoffs last spring; yes, they were facing the Stanley Cup champions - but that's all that was important; not the fact that the team happened to be the Pittsburgh Penguins.
I'd be lying, though, if part of that rationale wasn't my aversion to the thought of the Capitals falling at Mellon Arena. Nonetheless, the rationale, in my mind, remains sound and the Caps and their fans need to be careful not to ascribe this game more meaning that it really has. That's not to say the boys didn't play a hell of a game - they did. They pressured the puck in all three zones, went to the net, played physical without getting themselves into trouble, and all chipped in a little extra in Mike Green's absence (Karl Alzner and John Carlson, who both played solid games, deserve extra recognition here). This game isn't a finale or a major accomplishment in and of itself, it's a starting point; something the team can look at and say "that's what we're capable of, that's what we can do every night, that's where we're going to improve from". Championships aren't won in January, and we shouldn't pretend they are.
All that having been said. . .damn, it felt good to watch the Caps beat the Pens, didn't it?
Ten additional thoughts on tonight's game:
- Bruce Boudreau's decision to start the line of David Steckel, Matt Bradley, and Boyd Gordon made perfectly good sense - win the faceoff, cycle the puck, make the Penguins work to start out the game, and limit your defensive liabilities. Boudreau's decision to start Tyler Sloan and Tom Poti on defense I'm still trying to figure out.
- We could try and dismiss the first Pittsburgh goal as an honest mistake on the part of Jose Theodore and a couple of bad bounces, and that wouldn't be inaccurate, but it wouldn't be the whole story either. The reality is that a large part of the reason Sidney Crosby was able to put that puck home was that he played until the whistle and Theodore and Jeff Schultz didn't. I understand that playing to the whistle every shift, every game is easier said than done over 82 games at the NHL level - but that doesn't change that not doing it is simply unacceptable.
- I'm sure that most guys have more exciting dreams for their first NHL goal than casually putting a puck in the net the way Nick Johnson did tonight, but a kid having that kind of poise in front of the net in his first NHL game is pretty impressive.
- John Carlson's listed at 6'3'', 208, and unlike some of teammates, he looks as big as the team claims. That said, from the way he was getting pushed around during battles for the puck and bouncing off guys when he tried to play the body, it's pretty obvious he's used to playing against smaller, weaker opponents.
- The Tomas Fleischmann-Kris Letang hit was a great non-call. It would have been easy for a referee to see Letang go in to the boards awkwardly and stay down hurt and decided that was enough to warrant a minor penalty, despite the fact the hit was from the side and completely clean. Good work, fellas.
- That said, the non-call on Jordan Staal for slashing out Alex Ovechkin's feet in the closing seconds of the second period was a bad one. I thought the whole point of the two-referee system was to ensure plays like that didn't go unnoticed?
- What exactly was Eric Fehr thinking rushing over to break up the staredown-ready-to-turn-shoving-match between Tyler Sloan and Bill Guerin? If you're the Caps and you have an opportunity to trade Sloan for Guerin for two minutes you take it.
- Alexander Semin's pass to spring Tomas Fleischmann's breakaway goal seemed so simple - just a quick flick of the wrists - but to take that puck off the ice, puck it through two Penguins defenders, hit Fleischmann in stride, and have the biscuit sit down right before it got to Flash. . .wow.
- If you ever happen to run in to a Penguins fan who tries to tell you Ovechkin can't/won't/doesn't play defense, kindly suggest to him or her that they watch a tape of this game.
- And now for my final thought. Tonight's game featured nine goals, 72 shots on net, 65 hits, and some of the most talented and exciting players in the world. No matter where your allegiances lie, tonight was simply a good night to be a hockey fan. It's not the most important game either team will play all year, it's not the measuring stick some people want it to be, and the rivalry between the two captains isn't quite as fierce as some want you to believe. Nevertheless, tonight we all got a glimpse of the skill, the physicality, the speed, and the passion that made us fall in love with this game in the first place. That is the common bond we share, and be we Capitals fans, Penguins fans, or fans of any other team, we are all hockey fans first. It's the tie the unites us and what makes us see the humanity in one another, no matter how fierce the contest on the ice. Until next time, take care of yourselves. And each other.
Lastly, a quick, but big, 'thank you' to all the Caps fans and Rink Rats who came out to Bailey's in Arlington tonight and helped make the viewing party a success!