- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 23, 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 end of a power play on a goal by Joffrey Lupul — the ovation that cascaded down from the Verizon Center crowd last night as the two clubs shook hands said it all: Thanks for the memories, Capitals, and we anxiously await the next batch, next season.

But what a night, folks. What a two nights, actually, counting the Caps’ stirring rally to win Game 6 in Philadelphia. And what a return to the playoffs for Ted Leonsis’ team after such a long, painful absence.

“You have to be strong to play in overtime,” Sergei Fedorov said after the Capitals’ second OT defeat in the series. “It takes a minimum of mistakes, a minimum of giveaways, a minimum of everything.

“But I don’t want to take anything away from this locker room. The way we played, the way we came back, it was amazing to me. Our ability to find energy at the most difficult times. … It was an incredible experience I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life.”

Backstrom, who gave the club’s Red-Clad Rooters much hope by scoring the first goal barely five minutes into the game, sat on a nearby bench wearing a vacant look. Asked what he would take away from his first season in the NHL, his first playoff experience, he said, “It’s hard to say right now. … We have a young team, a good mix of older and younger players. Hopefully, this is going to be just the beginning. But I don’t want to think about [the future]. I’m just empty.”

Who wouldn’t be after a series like that, particularly following a 11-1 finish to the regular season? Brooks Laich, another of the Caps’ building blocks, used words like “devastating” and “stunned” to describe his emotions. But soon enough, such feelings will fade away, and the players will find solace in how far they came these last few months — almost as far as a second round made-for-TV matchup with the Sidney Crosby and the Penguins. That, alas, will have to wait for another day.

In the meantime, “We’ll do what we always do,” Leonsis said. “We’ll let the emotion drain out for about a month, and then we’ll sit down and talk about what we did well and what we want to do better.

“It was a tough way to lose. I didn’t [see a penalty called] after the puck dropped in the third period” — until, that is, Tom Poti was sent off for tripping 4:15 into overtime, giving Philly an opening it eagerly took advantage of. “But that’s the way the game goes. I’m sure if it had happened to the Flyers, they’d feel the same way.”

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 played host to 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. (Heck, 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.

Such an unusual series, though, this Caps-Flyers throwdown. 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), 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 last night. The team was on a roll, goalie Cristobal Huet had been increasingly sharp and the Seventh Man’s thunderous support couldn’t hurt. (I’m disappointed, however, that crowd never rewarded him with chants of “Hip-hip-Huet!”)

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 last night, 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. The Caps just need to work on the ending, that’s all.

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