Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Game 7: Caps vs. Pens

The last time I watched a seven game series in any sport that had me this much on edge was the 1991 World Series, when the Atlanta Braves lost to the Minnesota Twins, 2-1, in 10 innings, bringing to an end the most improbable Series match-up ever, as both teams had finished with the worst records in their leagues the year before, something that had never happened before. From that Series, remember that:

-- five of the seven games were decided by one run

-- no team had ever gone from worst to World Series champion

-- the home team won all seven games

-- four of the games were decided on the game's final at-bat

-- three games went into extra innings

-- Jack Morris pitched a 10 inning complete game to earn the victory in Game 7.

That Series didn't come out as would have liked. But, boy, it was and remains the best one I've ever seen . . . even better than the 1995 World Series, which the Braves won in six games.

Winning pitcher: Tom Glavine. Winning RBI: Dave Justice. See, my memory isn't completely shot.

* * * * * * * * * *

No one who likes, much less loves, hockey can possibly find anything wrong with the Eastern Conference semi-final match-up between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins. As recently as two years ago, the Caps were the laughing stock of the NHL, having blown-up their team the year before the 2004-05 lock-out to start all over again. The Caps won the lottery pick, allowing them to take Alex Ovechkin, around whom they decided to build their future. After just four complete NHL seasons,Ovechkin is easily the most exciting player in the league to watch. Not just that, he has delivered on all the hype surrounding him, having won all the league's most prestigious awards (MVP, Most Goals, Most Points) -- and more. Even better, Ovechkin has brought a level of enthusiasm and personality into a game that desperately needed both to overcome the ill-will generated by the sport's decision to shut down for a year. Only fans who can't count Ovechkin on their team seem to dislike him, and that dislike fades as soon as Ovechkin plays against the league's other best player, Sidney Crosby.

Crosby is a phenomenal hockey player. He sees the ice as well as Wayne Gretsky and Bobby Orr did, and those two saw the ice better than anyone else ever. No one in the league comes to close to him in play-making ability or sheer hockey smarts. Crosby reminds me of Gretsky in that he always about three steps ahead, at minimum, of everyone around him. Whereas Ovechkin just overpowers his opponents with an unparalleled combination of skill, force and determination, I can see Crosby working alongside George Clooney and Brad Pitt in the next "Ocean's" movie, so deft and skilled and cool is he with the puck. Once he tones down the whining and behind-the-play stick slapping (and I am not alone on this, as the NHL players ranked him as the league's "whiniest" player by a margin of 41%, 56% to Chris Pronger's 15%), he'll get the fan support he deserves outside of Pittsburgh. And, yes, acknowledge that there are other good players in the league, something he has a hard time doing as well. Ovechkin's got him here, never denying another player's greatness. He thrives on it, as it ramps up his desire to play even better.

But it's not just Ovechkin and Crosby. Eugeni Malkin is also an other-worldly talent, and the Pens also have some very good players in Jordan Staal, Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik and, at times, Sergei Gonchar. And on occasionk, they get flashes of brilliance from Marc-Andre Fleury, who is still far too inconsistent to pin as a future great goalie (Fleury, in fact, has been their weak spot so far, giving up far too many goals on too few shots). They're smart, disciplined, defensively more sound than the Caps and have the advantage of having the NHL's "face" on their side, which has seemingly immunized them against calls that have gone against the Caps with far too much regularity in this series.

The Caps counter with Mike Green, Niklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin (when he tries), a great checking line in Dave Steckel, Matt Bradley and Brooks Laich, and the still dangerous and brilliant Sergei Federov, whose defection to the United States in 1990 to play for the Detroit Red Wings made Ovechkin, Malkin, Gonchar and every other former Soviet and Soviet-bloc player's careers possible. And then there is Simeon Varlamov, who has emerged as the NHL's new star in this series. If Jose Theodore was all the Caps had to put out there, they never would have gotten past the New York Rangers, much less had a chance against the Pens, a far superior team.

Well, here's to tonight's game. See you there.

1 comment:

Nathan said...

Sorry about the outcome. I was rooting for the Caps.