Saturday, May 02, 2009

From Russia, with glove

Phew . . .

The Washington Capitals' newest Russian phenom, Simeon Varlamov, made what had to be the best save of the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs -- and quite possibly the entire NHL season -- earlier today against none other than Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby. The save definitely lifted a Caps team that was on their heels for most of the first two periods against the Penguins, stabilized their defense, which had been picked apart all game by Crosby and company. I had a perfect view of the save, sitting as I do in the second row of the upper-bowl. Naturally, I had to laugh after the game when I ran into some friends who sit in their expensive lower bowl seats wanting to know if I got a good view of the save.

"Yes, yes I did," I replied. "Did you enjoy seeing the save on the Jumbotron?"

I also saw all three of the Caps goals. Better yet, I saw all three plays develop completely unobstructed. Fantastic.

This is going to be one hell of a series. No one in their right mind can say that one team has a decided advantage over the other. For all the attention shone on the manufactured but hardly genuine Crosby vs. Ovechkin rivalry, this series will be won as most are -- by great goaltending and shutdown defensive play. I am not among Caps fans who harbor a special animus for Crosby, although it appears that hating Crosby is pretty much a league-wide sport. Ovechkin appeals far more to the average hockey fan than Crosby does, whereas Crosby is embraced by Canadians (and Pens fans) as the North American standard bearer of their sport. There is some irony here. Crosby plays a much more "European" game than Ovechkin does. He is a finesse player with a minimal physical presence who can nonetheless kill you with laser-guided passes and slick goals that come from not knowing whether to cut the passing lane or play him. Crosby has more than lived up to his expectations. My only negative with Crosby is the whining and complaining and slight sense of entitlement that goes with being the NHL's Chosen One. At 21, he'll grow out of it sooner rather than later.

Ovechkin, on the other hand, is all id to Crosby's superego. He plays every shift as if it were his last one, and hits anything that moves, and cannot, for anything, be taken off his skates. In the first period, Ovechkin crushed Pens agitator Matt Cooke along the boards, who plays a Sean Avery-type game minus the cheap shit and obnoxious personality. Cooke went looking for Ovechkin, found him, attempted an open-ice hit, couldn't knock him over, and ended up taking a really stupid penalty. The end result was a 5-3 power play, which allowed the Caps to tie the game up after . . . naturally, an opening goal from Crosby. Ovechkin is an absolute joy to watch, and will do more to bring casual sports fans to hockey than Crosby will just through the sheer force of his ebuillent personality and outrageous skills. Think Magic Johnson on skates.

Showing my age perhaps, the Crosby-Ovechkin match-up reminds me of the plot of "From Russia, With Love," the second James Bond movie. Crosby is 007, the handsome agent dispatched by Gary Bettman to make the NHL a family-friendly game. He's suave, has the equivalent of oil slicks, lasers and machine guns in his stick and puts the best North American face on a league that has become increasingly international (beyond the U.S. and Canada) in the last ten years. Ovechkin, on the other hand, is the Russian agent sent to kill him. Bond got the best of Red Grant in the movie's most violent sequence, the train fight towards the end. Remember how Bond was tipped off to Grant's true identity? Grant ordered the wrong wine with dinner, something no honorable MI6 agent would ever do. I pulled for Bond in the original movie. In the sequel, "From Russia, With Glove," I'm hoping that the Russians get their revenge.

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