I’m calling it. Time of death, 9:15 p.m. The playoff curse of Washington sports is over.
Seriously, it’s over. The frustration, the ineptitude, the inability to play to expectations, the sheer futility of D.C.’s teams in recent playoffs past: D-E-D dead. Cause of death: A Sergei Fedorov wrist shot to the jugular vein. (The autopsy would also reveal extensive blunt-force trauma inflicted by an Ovechkin-shaped object.)
First, let’s agree on something. There was a curse on D.C.’s sports teams. How else do you explain the shortcomings of the District’s teams despite the triumvirate firm of Arenas, Butler and Jamison and the flood of free agents lured by the scent of Daniel Snyder’s dollars? The Caps themselves, who had failed to advance to the second round of the playoffs since 1998, endured their own disappointing past. Jaromir Jagr? Some Caps fans break out in hives just hearing that name. Bruce Cassidy? Let’s just focus on Bruce Boudreau, shall we?
And now that Feds found the back of the net with five minutes remaining in the third period – sending the Verizon Center crowd into hysteria and the U.S. Geological Survey scrambling to check the seismic anomaly in downtown D.C. – we can. And for all the right reasons.
In Game 7 against the Rangers, Fedorov, Ovechkin, Boudreau and the Caps pulled a Father Karras and exorcised the demon. They sacrificed mind, body and soul to get it done, but, unlike the Rangers, they’ll be reborn in the second round. And this time they likely won’t allow themselves to slip behind the eight ball as they did against the Blueshirts.
Thanks to the win, the playoff story of the 2009 Caps won’t focus on the sin of losing the first two games at home, but rather the salvation of winning three of the final four.
First it was Simeon Varlamov, the fresh faced goalie thrown into the fire after Jose Theodore’s shortcomings in Game 1, bailing the Caps out from the Rangers first-period blitz. No saves may have been bigger in the game than his first two, extending the right leg on the second to rob Nik Antropov on a breakaway. Let that one slip and the Caps would soon have trailed 2-0 in Game 7, allowing the Rangers to retreat into their defensive shell as they did in each of their previous wins. And Lundqvist looked more than capable of carrying his team one more game, particularly since his teammates appeared willing to exert some extra effort.
Through the first 14 minutes of the game, Washington had zero shots on goal. Think about that for a minute. The team that averaged the second-most shots on goal during the regular season didn’t put a puck on net through the first 14 minutes of the most important game of its season. Despite all the reports that the Rangers would roll over, New York put its best foot forward in Game 7. And Lundqvist, whose Golden God persona was M.I.A. in Games 5 and 6, was back at his deific best Tuesday night. He robbed Viktor Kozlov with a sprawling glove save. He nipped a Nicklas Backstrom deflection to the corner with the bottom of his skate, a stop that made Gumby look like a brass statue.
But in the third period, this Caps team transcended the middling efforts and expected ousters that have become the norm in D.C. For the final 20 minutes, these Caps unleashed the fury, a fury pent-up from playoff failures and regular season sputterings. After Feds’ game-winner, Washington applied fire-hose pressure that didn’t even allow New York to pull the goalie down the stretch. Overall, they limited the Rangers to one measly shot in the third period while firing 13 of their own, including Fedorov’s death blow.
Fedorov, the oldest player to score a playoff game-winner, who looked worn and weary early in the series, worked his magic. Skating in from the right boards, the lefty snapped a shot from the faceoff dot over the glove of Lundqvist – the Achilles’ heel of the goalie’s demi-god armor this series. Nighty night, New York. Caps: 1, Curse: 0.
Now they just need to stay above .500. Up next is the Caps’ personal playoff curse: The Pittsburgh Penguins. Holy water will help … so will the effort that won them the bitter seven game series against the Rangers.