As a sports journalist in Washington, I have lost my ability to multitask. It’s been so long since this city had two sports teams that have required our attention simultaneously, the section of my brain that controls that function has atrophied. This explains why I was so ill-prepared to deal with what happened in DC last night: At Verizon Center it was game three of the Stanley Cup playoff series between the Capitals and Bruins–the first home game of this postseason for the Caps–while just three miles away Stephen Strasburg was making his 2012 home debut for the surprisingly hot Nationals. What’s a DC sports fan to do?
I thought about going to both events–kind of the way Phil Collins played both the London and Philadelphia Live Aid concerts on the same day back in ’85, only I would travel by Metro instead of the Concorde.
Turns out I wasn’t the only one who had that idea. Mark Lerner, who, in addition to being the majority owner of the Nationals, is one of Ted Leonsis’s minority partners in the Capitals, had legitimate business reasons to be at both games (far more legitimate than my Zelig-esque fancy). Lerner told me he started the night at Nationals Park, stayed until Strasburg finished pitching his six innings of two-run ball, then hightailed it to Chinatown, where he arrived in the owners’ suite in time to see the decisive third period of the hockey game. I’m guessing he didn’t take Metro.
As for me, I gave in to the realization that in my efforts to see both events, I would likely fail to get a genuine feel for either. I also realized I would have 16 or 17 more chances to see Strasburg pitch at home this season, while if the past few postseasons were an accurate bellwether, last night’s home playoff game might be one of only two we get this year.
I went to the Phone Booth.
No sport has a wider intensity gap between the regular season and the playoffs than hockey. That fact was evident on both side of the glass last night. Twenty-seven seconds into the game, Caps superstar Alex Ovechkin issued the night’s first hit. At full speed, he laid his left shoulder into Bruins defenseman Dennis Seidenberg, knocking the 30-year-old German off his feet and onto his wallet. The crowd roared its approval.
The game included 16 different minor penalties and at least half a dozen dust-ups after the whistle. “It was kind of like a rugby game there in the third [period] with all the scrums,” said head coach Dale Hunter. Hunter is a guy who knows the value of a well-placed face wash. After all, he accrued more than 3,500 penalty minutes during his 19-year NHL playing career–the second most in the league’s history. He added another 729 in the playoffs.
But some of the rough stuff seemed conspicuous in nature. The Bruins seemed to be taking multiple deliberate shots at the head of Caps center Nicklas Backstrom. This is noteworthy because Backstrom missed nearly half the season as he battled the effects of a concussion. At one point late in the first period, veteran Boston winger Milan Lucic purposely entangled himself with Backstrom and hit him so egregiously in the head that Backstrom’s helmet flew off.
If Boston’s aim was to frustrate Backstrom, it may have worked. Late in the period, the Capitals star was penalized for cross-checking the Bruins’ Brad Marchand. Less than four minutes later, the speedy Swede was whistled again–this time given a match penalty for wielding his stick to the face of Boston’s Rich Peverley. Both acts seemed to be retaliatory strikes for the accumulated misdeeds that befell Backstrom during the course of the game. While his coach may have admired Backstrom’s pluck, he would have rather seen his gifted goal scorer focus his attention on the net.
The only people more amped up than the players during last night’s game were the Caps fans. Ever since last year’s ignominious second-round sweep at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning, they have waited patiently and dutifully for another shot at playoff glory. And they know their role in these three-act televised dramas. They know when to scream “Red!” during the national anthem. They know their cue to join Tom Green chanting, “Unleash the fury!” on the Jumbotron. And, of course, they know what to wear. There is no official team regulation that says you can’t get into the building without wearing a red shirt, but I wouldn’t try it.
How loud was the crowd last night? When Brooks Laich beat Bruins net-minder Tim Thomas with six minutes remaining in the third period to tie the game at three, a fan held up a portable noise meter. It registered the crowd’s cheers and screams at 113 decibels–slightly louder than the sound of a McDonnell Douglas MD-80 jetliner passing 200 feet over your head.
The same meter registered almost nothing when Bruins captain Zdeno Chara netted the final goal of the night just four minutes later. That’s the one that sealed the 4-3 victory for Boston and sent the Caps’ faithful into the unseasonably balmy Washington night with a 2-1 series deficit.
Their drive home would have been a lot more pleasant had they gone to the Nats game. Strasburg got the win as the team improved to 8-3. And only 16,245 were there to see it–2,261 fewer than saw the Caps lose.