- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Sometimes it happens all at once for a team - the Tampa Bay Rays come to mind - but usually it happens in steps. And those steps aren’t always forward.

Indeed, the Capitals’ first step in their return to NHL relevance was backward, when Ted Leonsis and George McPhee dismantled the team after yet another playoff belly flop in 2003 and put every recognizable name - Peter Bondra, Dale Hunter, Jaromir Jagr, et al - up for bids on eBay. Three seasons of pride-swallowing rebuilding followed.

Last year the Caps’ took Step 2, making the playoffs - crashing them, really, with an 11-1 closing sprint - and going the distance with the more seasoned Flyers before losing the seventh game in overtime.

And now, almost like clockwork, we have Step 3, a 2-1 Game 7 victory over the Rangers that sends the Capitals to the second round for the first time since they went to the finals in 1998. Who knows how many more steps they’ll take in the weeks and years ahead? Who knows, for that matter, how many more steps 39-year-old Sergei Fedorov, who had the game-winner in the finale, will take with them?

But rest assured Caps fans will be talking forever about his improbable goal from a sharp angle Tuesday night that got the better of Henrik Lundqvist with 4:59 to go. (Just as they’re still talking about the late backbreaker he scored for the Red Wings in Game 3 of the ‘98 finals, giving Detroit a 3-0 series lead.)

“I guess when I was younger I used to do stuff like that,” he said, a pair of ice bags stuffed into his pants to soothe his aching lower back. “I don’t think I could breathe in the last [few] minutes. I was asphyxiated.”

It was the oldest Capital and the youngest Capital who saw the club through - Fedorov and goalie Simeon Varlamov, who turned 21 the day before but never once played like it. In six games against the Rangers he allowed just seven goals, unquestionably the biggest factor in the club’s comeback from a 3-1 series deficit.

“We knew he was a good one,” George McPhee said. “…He’s a steely-eyed sort of kid - it’s all about winning. … [But] you just don’t know when he’s going to be good. It took guts to put him in [in Game 2 after Jose Theodore was shaky in the opener], but it worked.”

I said the Caps’ progress was “almost like clockwork” because, well, there was nothing very precision-like about their play in the first 20 minutes Tuesday night. In fact, it was one of their worst periods of the series - lacking in energy and, just as distressingly, shots on goal (a mere two).

Fortunately for them, The Kid made two big stops in the opening seconds, blocking Sean Avery’s blast from the faceoff circle and then smothering a breakaway attempt by Nik Antropov. Antropov finally broke through at the 5:35 mark when, left unattended in front, he squeezed the puck past Varlamov, but it could have been so much worse for the home team.

And when Alexander Semin tied it late in the period on a manna-from-heaven deflection off a Ranger, it appeared the Caps had gotten off easy for their early skittishness. They had played abominably, and yet the score was 1-1.

They wouldn’t be the Capitals, though, if they didn’t live a little dangerously in this game - just as they did in falling behind in the series (and in last year’s as well). The only thing that ever seems to get a rise out of them, get them playing their best, is utter desperation. They’re definitely going to have to work on that; it’s too hard on the owner’s blood pressure.

The Capitals’ listlessness Tuesday night was doubly damaging because it gave their red-clad legions, so supportive all season, so little to make noise about. It was almost like the Caps negated their own home-ice advantage. After dominating, for the most part, the previous five games, they couldn’t get the puck out of their own end - and by the end of the second period, the sound of boos could be heard bouncing off the rafters.

But they weren’t we-hate-you boos or I’m-never-buying-another-partial-plan-again boos, they were what-the-heck-is-going-on-down-there boos (and, if I heard correctly, a smattering of this-is-your-final-warning boos).

Whatever the boos were supposed to mean, the Capitals must have heard them. They came out in the third period the way they’d been expected to come out in the first - forcing the action and firing plenty of rubber at Lundqvist. Why it took 40 minutes for this urgency to set in, only the team psychologist knows for sure.

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