David Elfin On Sports: Capitals Unexpected Playoff Heroes May Emerge
Over the last four years, Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, Alexander Semin and Brooks Laich have become Caps playoff perennials. When each hits the ice tonight in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals at Madison Square Garden, it will be his 32nd postseason game in a Washington uniform.
They’ll all be tied for 30th in franchise history in playoff appearances along with such Caps greats as Dino Ciccarelli, Bengt Gustafsson and Bobby Carpenter. If Washington, which leads the underdog New York Rangers 2-1, wins the series to advance to the conference semis, the current quintet will probably vault past another eight former Caps including 1990 record-breaking goal scorer John Druce.
And since Ovechkin, Backstrom, Green, Semin and Laich will all be under 30 next spring, too, they could soon be vying for the top 10 in playoff games for the Caps, a level each would reach with 17 more postseason contests.
However, as dynamic as Ovechkin et al are, the prospect of beating the Rangers just might lie in the hands of two Caps who hadn’t played for the team in the playoffs before last Wednesday.
One is Michal Neuvirth, the 23-year-old goalie, whose importance to Washington’s hopes of winning the Stanley Cup for the first time in its 36 seasons was argued in this space last Friday.
Neuvirth, who has recorded a terrific 1.22 goals-against average and a .951 save percentage in the series and has clearly won the job from fellow youngster Semyon Varlamov (who dazzled against New York in the 2009 playoffs), joins 20-year-old rookie center Marcus Johansson as Washington’s only NHL playoff neophytes.
The other critical player for the Caps just might be Jason Arnott, who’s just about at the other end of the playoff experience spectrum. The 36-year-old center, acquired before the trade deadline in March, is one of three players to have found the net in postseason during his 109 games for five franchises (Edmonton, New Jersey, Dallas, Nashville and Washington).
Among Arnott’s 69 playoff goals, of course is the one that won the Cup for the Stars 11 years ago. Arnott, the oldest Cap other than Mike Knuble, has three points in the three games against the Rangers. Only two-time MVP Ovechkin has more points (four). Arnott is also tied for second with a plus-1 rating and his 25.0 shooting percentage ranks second as well.
Washington is 12-1-1 (including playoffs) with Arnott, who has 10 points in those games.
Ovechkin, Backstrom and Co. are the Caps’ core, but come playoff time, unexpected heroes often emerge.
Druce was the hero of Washington’s first trip to the conference finals. Joe Juneau, Todd Krygier and Brian Bellows all scored overtime game-winners during the surprising 1998 run to the Cup finals.
Maybe 2011 will be remembered as the spring that Neuvirth arrived and Arnott made his trade pay.
David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1975. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the former President of the Pro Football Writers of America. A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan during the 2010 Redskins season, he returned to the station as its blogger in March.