Russian-led Capitals bringing Washington together in quest for elusive Stanley Cup

1:07 | NHL
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Friday March 24th, 2017

WASHINGTON—If you walked around the corner in front of the Verizon Center, the squawling of a Jimi-Hendrix-wannabe power trio drowned out the brassy swing of a second-line band that was playing up the block. As chaotic and cacophonic as this tableau sounds, in this most peculiar time in history, the Verizon Center may be the only place in the nation’s capital around which everybody is happy and where everything makes sense. It also is one of the few places in our nation’s capital where people are happy with the conspicuous presence of Russians in our national life. The Washington Capitals are saving sanity in a place that desperately needs its sanity saved.

They had a good week for themselves. On Tuesday night, thanks to a fairly inhuman goal from Alex Ovechkin, the Caps squashed the Flames, 4-2. Two nights later, in a game that was said by every haircut on TV as possessing a “playoff” atmosphere, Washington squeezed by Columbus 2-1 in overtime, when T.J. Oshie was the only player on either team to score in a shootout. “This is something I’ve been practicing since I was 10, so we’re talking about, what, 20 years of practicing it,” said Oshie, whose gifts in the freakish shootout format became legendary at Sochi during the 2014 Winter Olympics when Oshie sank four of six shots for the U.S. in a shootout against Russian goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, the same guy he beat for the winner on Thursday night. “I guess I should be good at it by now.”

Now, it should be mentioned that Thursday's game did not make sense in the historic Toe Blake NHL way. It was contested between those traditional hockey hotbeds—Washington, D.C. and Columbus, Ohio, two cities where a decent plate of poutine simply cannot be found for love or bribery. At stake was first place in something called the Metropolitan Division of the NHL’s Eastern Conference, and the Metropolitan Division sounds like a place on which Jimmy McNulty and Bunk Moreland should be lining up the power play. Nonetheless, both teams have put up more than 100 points this season, albeit in conspicuously different fashion. Washington was a preseason favorite to make a deep playoff run. The Blue Jackets, however, took the league by surprise earlier this season when they rattled off 16 wins in a row, one short of the NHL record held by the 1992-93 Pittsburgh Penguins. The streak was broken on Jan. 4 by the Capitals, in Washington, with a 5–0 rout. Since then, the two teams—along with the Penguins, who have moved into second place—have brawled merrily for the division lead. There are four teams with 100 points in the NHL, and cruelly three of them are playing in the Metro, which is also the best way to get to a Caps game, now that I think about it.

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Truth be told, there was a flavor of the oncoming playoff spring in the Verizon Center Thursday night. The Capitals managed to pile up a whopping 31–17 shots-on-goal lead through two scoreless periods, but they really got only four or five decent chances at Bobrovsky, who was more than equal to them. (He stopped eight shots by his Russian international teammate Ovechkin alone.) “It always seemed like a tight game, even though we had that big edge in shots,” Oshie said. “That was probably due to the fact we had the puck a lot.”

Columbus finally broke through in the first minute of the third period. The puck came bouncing out of a scrum around Washington’s net. Columbus defenseman Seth Jones stepped in toward the goal and whistled it past goalie Braden Holtby, who was still sprawled in the crease.

“In the third,” said Washington coach Barry Trotz, “we came out and just kept pounding the rock, and then they get a goal right off the bat. What I liked was the way we responded. We didn’t panic. We just elevated our game and got the goal that tied the game.”

Six minutes later, Washington’s Marcus Johansson found Dmitry Orlov alone just inside the Columbus blue line. Orlov and Bobrovsky came up together through the Russian junior system; Orlov even occasionally had Christmas dinner at Bobrovsky’s house. When the puck came to him, Orlov sent a bullet into the top right corner to tie the game. The two teams played an exciting—but scoreless—three-on-three overtime period before Oshie got the chance to do what he usually does in the shootout.

“We’re from the same hometown so it’s fun to see him,” Orlov said of Bobrovsky. “But when we’re on the ice, you know, we’re not friends. I try to score on him, and he tries to stop me, and it was a good battle for both teams. This was the first time I scored on him. It was nice because it tied the game.

“We always together, you know, me and Alex and Evgeny (Kuznetsov),” he continued. “It’s always good to be around the Russians, you know? It’s awesome.”

And that is something nobody else in Washington is saying these days.

Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

*****

On Tuesday night, after the Flames had cut a Washington lead to one goal, Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom seemed to be teeing up a slap shot from in front of the net. Instead, in the hockey equivalent of a head-fake in basketball or a play-action in football, Backstrom got the Calgary defense to commit and then turned his shot into a pass, finding linemate Ovechkin deep in the left faceoff circle at a preposterous angle to the goal. Somehow, Ovechkin found—or invented—an angle and buried a shot in the top corner of the far side of the net. This wasn’t a matter of throwing a shot on goal and hoping it bounces off someone. This was a shot coolly and deliberately placed, and one that only two or three players anywhere would have seen, let alone scored on. “That’s why he’s who he is,” Oshie said later. “He’s Alex. He sees things that the rest of us don’t.”

“That was a ridiculous shot,” Backstrom said. “If you give him 11 shots in a game, one of them is going to go in.”

Nick Wass/AP

Two nights later, with Columbus in town, it was Russian Heritage Night at the Verizon Center on Thursday, and Ovechkin was wearing some custom skates, one of which had a Russian flag and a depiction of Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow and the other had an American flag and a depiction of the Capitol. The skates will be auctioned off for charity. This might have been a thing, given everything else that’s going on across town, but the Verizon Center is a politics-free zone, and Ovechkin transcends even the worst instincts of this one-industry town.

He’s 31 now, and he’s grown out of what his critics often threw at him during the first few years of his career. He’s not even the leading goal scorer on the Capitals, trailing Oshie, who has 30, by one. Ovechkin's goal against Calgary was just his second in the previous month, which included a 10-game drought that was the longest of his career. Nonetheless, on any given night, he can still do something that you’ve never seen before.

“The most important thing to do is just to stay healthy,” he said. “When we are playing like this, it’s fun to watch from the stands, and it’s fun to play out there. We are moving well. You can see how we skate through the neutral zone. It’s a fun time right now.”

There is one thing missing, of course. His team has not yet won a Stanley Cup. It’s a position not unfamiliar to, say, LeBron James, or even Michael Jordan, who probably is a better parallel. Jordan won a bunch of scoring titles before he won his first ring, and more than a few people constructed an identity for him because of that fact. Ovechkin’s résumé as a goal scorer is beyond dispute.  He’s won a lot of the NHL’s shiny hardware, all of it awarded for individual achievement. (There is no professional sports league with as many garish andirons as the NHL.) The Cup is what’s out there, as winter turns to spring, and the guy with the Fender Strat drowns out the guy with the trombone. Everyone in Washington has an island of refuge from the encircling madness, where even the Russians are free of the city.

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