Tuesday night’s Game Seven between the Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals was the sort that lived up to every ounce of the mystique inherent in its name. It was the kind of marquee event where you spell “drama” by writing “OT” and “heartbreak” with a lonely “L.” And if you’re a Caps fan, it’s the kind of defeat that can leave you muttering to yourself. Eventually, grudgingly, reason takes over and the sting subsides to the salve of time and a boundless optimism for the home team that has been made famous by the North side of Chicago. Just wait ’til next year!
Sadly, next year is several months off yet, so we have some time to digest the downer of Game Seven and turn a tentative eye to the offseason. It’s a good time to confront that instinctive voice inside your head that’s not going to rest until the referees’ decisions are somehow re-written. So as to subvert a spate of stripe-shirted effigies, let’s address those questions first.
The refs were as bad as a week-old cheesesteak. How can they make those calls?
It was pretty shocking that they called Tom Poti for tripping when it appeared he made contact with the puck, something that should negate a potential tripping call, however it wasn’t nearly as shocking as when the refs swallowed their whistles when John Erskine hooked the skates of Sami Kapanen while Erskine was lying prone on the ice. After that, the Caps were clearly not going to get the first power play.
Two wrongs (bad no-call on Erskine, bad call on Poti) don’t make a right, but it’s hard to say the Caps got jobbed when they clearly caught an initial break in overtime.
What about the Flyers’ second goal? That was obviously goaltender interference!
Actually, it’s not that obvious. I spent the morning trying to decipher “Rule 78 – Protection of the Goalkeeper” in the NHL rulebook and there is nothing that explicitly states the proper call for when Philly's Patrick Thoresen pushed Washington's Shaone Morrisonn into Caps goalie Cristobal Huet, clearing the net for an easy goal by Kapanen. The rule never discusses the use of a defenseman as a “buffer” of sorts to slam the goalie, though the interpretation was previously used against the Caps in their final game against Tampa Bay this season. In that instance, the Caps had a goal taken off the board.
The rule does say, however, that the goalie cannot be “prevented from returning to his crease area due to the deliberate actions of an attacking player, such player may be penalized for goalkeeper interference.” It seemed pretty clear to me that Thoresen was pinning Morrisonn on top of Huet to make sure the goalie couldn’t return to the crease. Again though, it’s all at the ref's discretion and he either didn’t see it or didn’t think it warranted a penalty. Tough pill to swallow, but you’ve got to choke it down if you don’t want to be spewing sour grapes all summer.
But how can the Flyers win Game Seven? The Caps had everything going for them coming into the game and now Philly’s obnoxious fans get to celebrate. Where’s the Karma?
I actually have no explanation for this one. It seems clear that Karma should intervene against the Flyers’ fans, especially when one of them has the “class” to pour his beer on the head of Ted Leonsis’s son after Game Six. Furthermore, when you boo your own team in the playoffs it doesn’t seem fair that you get to rally around them again in the second round.
I guess Karma couldn’t slip one by Flyers goalie Martin Biron either. Biron was magnificent with 39 saves and controlled almost every rebound in Game Seven. The Caps still had a few chances late, but the puck skipped over Alexander Semin’s stick and Alex Ovechkin tried to pass for the higher-percentage look, instead of wailing another shot on goal from the slot. Those two plays are going to stick with the Alexes all summer.
But rather than focus on what the Caps didn't do, let's focus on their achievements. They pulled themselves up from worst to first in the Southeast Division and nearly tipped a veteran Flyers team in the first round after essentially spotting them two games. Even more impressive, they turned D.C. into a hockey town. Coming into the office on Wednesday, everyone was talking about Game Seven. The last time sports were the topic du jour here was probably the Super Bowl.
It was a fairly sad finale, but this was easily the team's most memorable season since the run to the Stanley Cup finals in 1998. Fans ought to savor what they can today and unleash the fury again next year.
Okay, I’m starting to feel better. What do I have to look forward to before the puck drops next season?
The summer should be full of plenty of intrigue for the Caps. Both Brooks Laich and Mike Green are restricted free agents and the Caps need to lock them up before an opposing GM can sign them to an exorbitant offer sheet. You don’t think Edmonton GM Kevin Lowe would love to get some payback for the Caps ripping Michael Nylander from his clutches last year? I think the Oilers will break every piggy bank in town to throw as much cash as they can at Mike Green … and they won’t be the only ones. As restricted free agents, the Caps will have the chance to match any offers to Green and Laich, but keep in mind that Washington is still flirting with red figures on their books and the Caps will need to sign a No. 1 goalie.
Huet is the logical choice after his stellar play down the stretch and in the playoffs, but it’s that same stellar play that means he won’t come cheap. And if the Caps want to contend next year, they need him. It’s too early to turn the top spot over to goalie prospects Michael Neuvirth and Simeon Varlamov.
I’m also interested to see what happens with Sergei Fedorov. He’s perfect in Washington’s system and seems happy here, but every team can use a savvy center with Stanley Cup experience and he's sure to get some good offers elsewhere. Can the Caps afford to keep him? What about Matt Cooke?
If the Caps can at least keep Fedorov and Laich, how about these top three line combinations for next year?
And there's also the possibility the blue line gets infused with some new blood in the form of Karl Alzner. Alzner put up 36 points for the WHL's Calgary Hitmen this season, with a plus/minus rating of plus-26. He's got to be in the mix for a spot in Washington's top six defensemen next year, as well as Hershey's Sami Lepisto, who was called up several times this season as an injury replacement.