Thursday, May 14, 2009

Game 7, Caps vs. Pens

A rare hockey post!

As some of you already knew, I attended Game 7 of the Penguins/Capitals second round playoff series on Wednesday night. You may have seen the final score (6-2), and if possible, the game was actually less competitive than the score would indicate. However, it offered an experience that I won't soon forget. Let me offer you a little run down of the evening.

My brother and I headed for the Metro straight after work. We decided that we'd head down early and eat in DC, with the hope of avoiding some of the evening rush. We accomplished that for the most part, and ate dinner at Capital City Brewing. They have a couple of microbrews, and they gave Eddie the wrong one for his first glass, so I was able to taste three of them. They were all decent, but none of them were fantastic, and I'd have preferred a Leinenkugel's Sunset Wheat over any of them. It was good enough, as was the food, and while nothing was particularly worth mentioning, we headed into the game ready to cheer on the Caps.

Unfortunately, the feeling wouldn't last. An early breakaway by Alex Ovechkin that he wasn't able to plant might've been the difference in the game, but with how out of hand things got, I have a tough time thinking that one goal would've changed the course of the game. A phantom slashing penalty was called against Shaone Morrisonn (I say phantom, but when you're at the game, you don't get replays, so it might've been totally legit), and the Penguins scored on the ensuing power play. Then they scored again, like ten seconds later, and you could see a lump in the throat of everyone in the stands.

Pittsburgh scored two more goals in the second period before coach Bruce Boudreau pulled youngster goalie Simeon Varlamov, but the blame can't really all be put on Varlamov. The goalie can only play the pucks that come his way, and with 16 shots in the first period, he was seeing way too many shots. Give credit to the Penguins for that; they found a chink in the Capitals' armor, and were able to drive a pike right through it.

My brother pointed out a specific problem with the way the Caps were playing, and logically, it sounds right. The weakest part of Varlamov's game is his ability to play the puck around the back of the net and start the offense. So, he often would just tap it to try to get the puck under control, or not play it at all. That meant that Capitals defensemen had to come down and start playing the puck from a loose position, rather than off a goalie pass. The Penguins were able to exploit this by constantly challenging the loose pucks in Washington's zone, and were often able to get scoring chances off of panicked or lazy passes this way. Hopefully that's something that the Caps will be able to work on with Varly in the offseason.

Anyways, the game went on, with the Caps decidedly out of it. They scored a couple of goals to give the fans something to cheer about, but the Penguins played a lot of keep away, and were able to tack on a fifth and sixth goal to put it away. My brother and I were disappointed, but we weren't leaving. It was the playoffs, it was game seven, and it would be the last hockey the Caps would play for five months, and we were going to get our fill.

With about three minutes to go, the crowd started to stir, and little chants started to surface around the arena. Within another minute, the whole stadium was rocking with a loud, "Let's go Caps!" cheer, and raucous applause. Washington wasn't even playing particularly well, and the chant didn't waver between offensive and defensive possessions. As the last few seconds ticked off the clock, the roar became deafening, and with the final horn, you'd have thought the game was being played in Pittsburgh.

The players collected at their respective benches, and the fans quieted down a little, but stayed in the stands, still cheering and clapping. As I looked around the stadium, and onto the ice where the players from both teams were now shaking hands, I felt something I don't know if I've ever felt before.

Pride. I was proud of my sports team, and proud of all the other fans in the arena. We had come out to support our hometown team, and even though they played their worst game of the playoffs, we were going to do our part just the same.

As a couple of Penguins players were being interviewed, the Caps collected on the ice, and the fans began to crescendo again. Ovechkin was coming across the ice slowly, visibly saddened at the Caps being eliminated, and it was as if the stadium just wanted to do our part to bring these guys up. The fans started going bonkers, and Ovechkin looked up and raised his stick. The rest of the Caps put their sticks in the air, and the Verizon Center shook with the thunderous response from the crowd. We were all sad about losing the game, but the brief connection between the players and fans was something that reminds me why people love sports.

Yes, it's fun to watch virtuosity, and with Ovechkin, Gilbert Arenas, and Sean Taylor, we've had our opportunities to see great players over the past several years. But the real benefit of sports is what we all want out of life: to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Most of us don't have that opportunity in our jobs, or in our social lives. We do what we do, and maybe we do some good here and there, but a lot of people continue to lack that sense of belonging. There are rare moments when you can get that feeling. That's why, in retrospect, even if I had known that the Caps were going to lose, I wouldn't have sold my ticket for $300, or even $400 (when you get to $500, I start to waver). That feeling is something I won't ever forget, and something I'll strive after for a long time.

So, once more, as a send off for a very good season, and a call to arms for everyone to stick around on the bandwagon through to next year...

C-A-P-S! Caps! Caps! Caps!

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