By Kostya Kennedy, SI.com
So it's come to this: Game 7 in the Verizon Center, 60 minutes of ice time for the right to play in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Such a chance might have seemed unthinkable for the Flyers at this time last year, when they were -- oh, the horror on Broad Street! -- the doormats of the Eastern Conference. It would have seemed precarious just a month or so ago, before they'd won seven of their last nine to get into the postseason.
And for the Capitals? Game 7 on home ice? Forget about it. Not in late November when the team was 6-14-1 and headed for another spring of walks along the Washington mall. That was before coach Bruce Boudreau swung into town, and before the Capitals, chocked with young talent, started learning how to win.
This Game 7 is a gift to all of us, a late lagniappe in what has been a gripping first round: the taut Colorado-Minnesota series, the Predators throwing some fear into the Red Wings, the energy and antics of the Rangers and Devils, and now three Game 7s. Don't let the Canadiens' 5-0 walk on Monday night jade you, Game 7s are what we wait for.
If you're watching this series impartially -- that is, if you're not one of those Flyeraniacs who hasn't taken the Orange Crush! T-shirt off in weeks -- you realize, soon as you tune in, how hard it is to take your eyes off the Capitals. And not just because of No. 8, Alexander Ovechkin, who has become the Dominique Wilkins of the NHL.
Boudreau has been talking about how his team is maturing game-by-game in this playoff atmosphere (himself included, mind you, as the guy had never coached a shift in the NHL before this year). You can see it not only in the larger perspective -- the erasing of a three-games-to-one deficit -- you could also see it in the details of Game 6. Out came the Flyers, going hard as they've gone all series. "We have to initiate," coach John Stevens declared before the game, and the Flyers did: up 2-0 after Daniel Briere's blistering wrister early in Period 2.
Here were the Capitals, already further along than anyone thought they had a right to be, two goals down and 38 minutes away from elimination, playing before a sea of orange-clad Flyers fans who've been known to hurl a few things you wouldn't want your mother to hear at opposing teams. (An aside: When I asked the Rangers' Scott Gomez about playing in Philadelphia earlier this season, he gave a theatrical shudder, a characteristic grin, "Man, that place is tough," he said. "Like a headache.")
Who outside the visitors' bench would have been shocked to see the Capitals slink away? Who nodded sagely while seeing them beginning to crumble when they took a too-many-men on the ice penalty less than a minute after Briere's strike?
Instead this: The Capitals methodically killed off that Flyers power play. Boudreau, undaunted, kept rolling his lines. Washington stayed calm, stayed persistent. Suddenly you started seeing the Capitals back to what they had been in Game 5 at home, controlling the play at 5-on-5, cycling the puck, drawing a power play of their own.
Midway through the second period, that gorgeous Capitals second line of Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and Brooks Laich advanced like a cavalry up the ice. Tic-tac-tic-tac went the puck among their stick blades until Backstrom whipped it past Flyers goalie, Martin Biron, stick side. It stayed all Capitals after that, a determined white swarm in the Philly end. And when Semin swept in the rebound of a John Erskine slapper that Biron couldn't quite glove, the game was all tied up, one period left to decide it.
A team grows in D.C.
The Flyers see the Capitals maturing at Orr-speed, too. It's why Philly forward R.J. Umberger demanded his team have a "do-or-die" mentality for Game 6. But the Flyers are not dead yet, not even after the glory of Ovechkin in the third, sprung loose on a breakaway for the game-winner and there to slap home the clincher with half a period to play. The orange sea began to depart after that second Ovechkin goal, but some will flood into Washington tonight, making the trip to see their team's last stand.
"We've won nothing," Boudreau reminded everyone after the game, even though it felt as if they had.
This is anyone's game tonight, anyone's series. The Flyers, you remember, won in Washington in Game 2, shutting out the Capitals. Of course the Capitals were a different team then, a little younger, a little less experienced, little less sure of what it takes to win.