Friday, April 18, 2008

Saving the NHL From Itself

If you close your eyes, you can almost put yourself at Washington Capitals practice this afternoon:
Sullen Capital’s coach Bruce Boudreau grimaced slightly as he called for his boys attention at the end of an ennui filled skate. “Okay,” he intoned firmly, “I want one long line- from the blue line to the goal- captain up front, Huet in back.” The players glided slowly into position.

“All right,” Coach continued, “At the end of the game tomorrow afternoon, I want just like that. Just shuffle forward, extend you right hand and say things like ‘Good series’ and ‘Nice job’. Huet! You can hug Biron if you want.”
The Flyers and Capitals continued to try and single-handedly save the NHL from itself- playing a highly entertaining and spirited tilt in Philadelphia last night. The last three period managed to feature only one power play from an on-ice foul- the absolutely terrible late interference penalty on Kozlov. Imagine that. Nearly sixty minute of taught, physical hockey- and the only blight a stupid new NHL penalty? Is anyone in Toronto in an important office observing this?

Contrary to the Washington Post’s published inanities, emergency intervention seemingly was not required by the NHL to rein in the Flyers and their fans. Although the gasbag in question, Mike Wise, has yet another article this morning where he simply marvels at the energy the Flyers’ fans generate for their club. The Capitals got themselves going in this series. For the first time, Washington showed commitment, toughness, the will it requires to win in the post-season. The result was about as even a tilt as you could imagine: Biron gives the Caps a bad goal in the second period, the Caps return the favor via a stupid too many men on the ice foul in the third period. Other than that, it was physical and fun- all the thing the NHL loathes. Too few odd man rushes, I suppose. Power plays equal entertainment! And no post-game penalty shot competition were surely a downer in league offices.

I’ve beat on the Washington coaching effort all series along- and again, they were a factor last night. First, they tried to steal a “set the tone” shift from the get-go, putting the energy line out to start the game. Of course, energy line is code for “your three worst forwards”- and when you’re getting out-coached, that sort of thing always backfires. Score!

Then, it wasn’t so much Washington overplaying Ovechkin- but his line mate, the aging Federov, who consequently must play a lot too, looked exhausted throughout the overtime. As the clock ran and ran, the Flyers advantage in forward depth (seven twenty goal scorers), coupled with commitment to play them regularly, became a bigger and bigger factor. The Flyers were generating more and better chances over both overtimes. And finally, one of those twenty goals scorers, Mike Knuble, on a secondary line banged one home.

Biron was solid in OT- but the softie in the second was a bad one in a bad spot- so the Flyers survive the shaky night in nets you knew was coming. Last night, the Caps finally showed why they are one of the top dozen teams in hockey. The Flyers are about at the level too. It isn’t done- the Caps will be a tough out in their building. But their best effort isn’t enough to guarantee a win- and that is trouble when you need three in a row.