- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 22, 2008

It hurts, sure, the Capitals’ 3-2 overtime loss to the Flyers in Game 7. But it hurts less knowing this was just a preview of coming attractions, that Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, Mike Green and the rest of the Caps’ Kids will be back for more — plenty more.

Heartbreaking though the loss might be for the team’s fans, coming as it did just nine seconds before the expiration of a power play on a goal Joffrey Lupul, the ovation that cascaded down from the Verizon Center crowd as the clubs shook hands said it all: Thanks for the memories, and we look forward to the next batch, next season.

But what a night. (And what a return to the playoffs for the Capitals after such a long absence.)

Every, oh, 16 years or so, it’s good to get a Game 7 in Washington — or any postseason game of import, really. The electric atmosphere at the Phone Booth — the sea of Red Capitalswear, the waving towels — made you realize how few of these sporting extravaganzas we’ve witnessed recently.

Think about it. The Redskins have had one home playoff game since their ‘91 Super Bowl season (a first-round matchup with an 8-8 Lions team in ‘99). That’s right, in Joe Gibbs’ second term as coach, none — not a one — of his three playoff games was at FedEx Field.

As for the Wizards, well, their last Game 7 was 29 years ago, when they beat the Spurs by a basket in Landover. And in the three decades that have followed, Abe Pollin’s club hasn’t exactly had a lot of pulse-quickening postseason contests. How many of the Caps are even 29 years old?

Washington, in other words, has been bereft of the kind of scene witnessed at Capitals-Flyers, Chapter Seven. In fact, the last truly major event here — among the sports that matter most, at least — was the Caps’ ‘98 trip to the Stanley Cup Finals. Yeah, it was fun having Michael Jordan to gawk at for a couple of seasons, but where did it get us?

No, we’ve definitely been thrill-deprived in D.C. But that may be changing, thanks to a Capitals club that has the NHL’s most dynamic player, Ovechkin, and the potential, in the not-too-distant future, to join the league’s elite.

It was the strangest of series, this Caps-Flyers matchup. Philly easily could have won the first four games (if it hadn’t blown a two-goal lead in the third period of the opener, that is), and the Caps easily could have won Games 4, 5 and 6 (if they hadn’t, of course, given up an overtime-causing goal late in the fourth meeting).

Everything, though, appeared to be pointing Washington’s way going into tonight. The team was on a roll, the goalie had been increasingly sharp and the Seventh Man’s thunderous support couldn’t hurt. But these hockey playoffs can be so hard to read. The Capitals looked in need of smelling salts after falling behind 2-0 Monday night in Philadelphia, but then they turned around and scored four straight goals to force a seventh game.

The Flyers, meanwhile, gave up the first score tonight, which is usually asking for trouble — especially on enemy ice. But they counterpunched and pulled ahead 2-1 before Ovechkin swooped in on the left wing near the end of Period 2 and blasted a shot past Martin Biron to tie it.

Add it all up, and you had a riveting, rousing Game 7 — and about as entertaining a first-round series as you could ask for. As the clock ticked down during the second intermission, you wondered if the Caps’ young legs and young guns would pull them through, as they had the previous evening. You wondered, but you assumed nothing, because if there was one thing the two teams had proven during their extended slugfest, it was that there was precious little difference between them.

A bouncing puck, a deflected shot, a foolish penalty — anything, you figured, could decide the outcome. And there was absolutely no legal requirement that fairness be involved. (Or as Clint Eastwood put it in “Unforgiven,” “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”)

The third period didn’t disappoint. Bones rattled against the boards. Bodies sprawled to block shots. Slappers whistled just wide of the net. And the sellout crowd, naturally, shouted themselves hoarse, as they’ve been doing since the Capitals’ mad dash to the playoffs began over a month ago.

But after 20 more minutes of impassioned playing, the score remained the same and the game headed into OT. It was officially a classic now, regardless of the final result — unsatisfying as it wound up being.

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