Wow. I mean, wow. The Royal Baby™, The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports™ and The Fight of the Century™ all on the same day. How much excitement and how many trademarks can society handle in 24 hours?
Yes, Saturday was a day for the stars to come out. And speaking of stars and excitement, did you catch that New York Rangers-Washington Capitals game Saturday afternoon? To quote Pittsburgh Penguins play-by-play man Mike Lange, “Get in the fast lane, Grandma! The bingo game is ready to roll!”
And we can only hope it keeps rolling the way it did in Game 2, with the big boys putting on their big-boy pants and getting the job done. Yes, we’re well aware this is the playoffs and in order to win the Stanley Cup you need contributions from all four lines and blah, blah, blah. But isn’t it nice, once in a while, to see the highest-paid, most wildly talented and most recognizable players on both teams raise the levels of their games and go hammer-and-tong at each other?
Because that’s what happened on Saturday afternoon in the Rangers' 3-2 win over the Capitals in Game 2 of their second-round series. The foot soldiers did their jobs to be sure, but this one was decided by the stars on both teams and produced a game, that if replicated for the next five in this series – we’re assuming it will go seven - will have us all scratching our backs with hacksaws.
After Game 1 in which his team looked very uncharacteristic and lackadaisical, particularly in the final seconds, Rangers coach Alain Vigneault challenged his best players to be better. And they were. Right around the same time, Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz was comparing Alex Ovechkin to Mark Messier. And Ovechkin delivered a Messier-like performance in Game 2, even if his team lost. The fact that Ovechkin, in a game his team lost, was such a focal point during the game and a talking point after it underlines how much of a factor he was.
And this is the way it should always be – the best players getting the opportunity to display their skills and decide the outcome of games. An interesting series, this one. It pits the speed and transition game of the Rangers against the heavy game of the Capitals and so far there has been little to choose between the two teams. The Rangers, after dominating the first period, held just a 63-60 edge in shot attempts and were as fortunate to come out with a win in Game 2 as they were unfortunate not to win in Game 1.
The goaltending on both sides has been stellar, the pace has been really good and top players for both teams took matters into their own hands. Rick Nash, who looked to be going through another ineffective playoff, was a force to be reckoned with in Game 2. He went to the net harder than he has in a long time and made life difficult for Capitals goalie Braden Holtby. Martin St-Louis was better for the Rangers. Chris Kreider and Derek Stepan caused the Capitals fits, particularly early in the game, with their speed and willingness to go to the net.
And on the other side, you have Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov. One is the mentor, the other the protege. Ovechkin was the best player on either team on the ice and Kuznetsov finished a play with a goal after starting with a faceoff almost 200 feet from the opposing net. Ovechkin finished the game with 11 shot attempts and nine hits, which was the highest total on either team in both categories. It’s looking as though Ovechkin has no interest in going to Prague to help Russia win another World Championship this year, that he’s focused and dialed into this series in a big way and he’s going to keep coming at the Rangers until they find a way to stop him.
Give Ovechkin some credit here. Sidney Crosby has received all sorts of plaudits for rounding out his game and improving in areas where he was deficient. But Ovechkin perhaps isn’t getting enough credit for two areas of his game that have changed. He’s far less predictable when he has the puck on his stick in the offensive zone and his playmaking ability has come to fore.
The Rangers, meanwhile, will count on getting continued production from their top forwards as the series shifts to Washington. It should be fascinating to watch it all unfold, particularly if the driving forces on both teams play the way they did in Game 2. And that’s what the post-season is all about, isn’t it?