One thing that always strikes me when watching a hockey game up close is the size of the players. On Thursday night at the Verizon Center, I got closer than I ever had before, and I wasn't disappointed.
The first face I see when I turn into the players' hallway is that of Alex Galchenyuk. He is doing his pregame warmups. He has the face of an 18-year old, and later during the game, as he soaks in the crowd, basks in the atmosphere, and receives notes from veteran teammates, it is very clear he's a rookie. For now however, all I can see is his cyborg of a body, and his veteran-level focus. The one we affably call Gally doesn't look like a kid; he looks like a machine. Some of his teammates stretch together, joking around just outside the visiting locker room. But Galchenyuk is in his own world, staring straight ahead, 100 percent concentrated. He knows what he wants and he's come to the NHL to take it.
The Verizon Center is a modern enough arena with an open press box built into the foundation - unlike the freestanding platform that overhangs the Bell Center. The sea of red which pervades its interior isn't unlike what one would see in Montreal, and Caps Nation has developed its own set of rituals that - although less stooped in tradition than what Canadiens marketing has managed to instill - give the place a unique feel. During the national anthem, Caps fans chant in unison the word "red" in "and the rocket's red glare". And then there's Horn Guy, who uses his Vuvuzela to start "Let's Go Caps" chants throughout the game.
And that brings me to the crowd. The last time I was at the Verizon Center for an NHL game was last spring. The Caps were coming home for game 3 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal against the Boston Bruins tied 1-1, and there was excitement in the air. When Alex Semin scored to put the Caps up 1-0, it felt like a Cammalleri snipe instead. I was that excited. The crowd was that excited. "Washington is a hockey city" is what I've been told repeatedly since arriving. When the team is winning, at the very least, the statement seems accurate.
But they're not winning. And it is evident when a large portion of the crowd leaves after two periods that this isn't Montreal. Why? When the Caps take to the ice to start the third period, the chorus of boos that one would expect to greet a team that has led a game for no more than three minutes this year and that until this point has been outscored 14-5, is strikingly absent. There is an air of indifference that in Montreal was only seen late last year, when it was clear a high draft pick was the only thing that could salvage a disastrous season.
Feedback from Canadiens fans has indicated the game was largely seen as a snoozefest. For Capitals fans inside the building, the reaction early on was largely different. According to some fellow staffers, compared to Tuesday's suck-fest against the Jets, the first half of this game provided end-to-end action that hadn't been seen yet this year. It likely hadn't been seen very much since Bruce Boudreau was fired. In those days, however, the team got results. This year, they're now 0-3.
It's easy to praise the Canadiens for this win. There were obvious positives, and it would be unfair not to mention them. Andrei Markov looks like the vintage edition, circa. 07-08. Raphael Diaz is looking like a capable PP, PK, and even-strength defenseman. Francis Bouillon is now playing under 20 minutes. Rene Bourque is finally contributing. Tomas Plekanec finally has linemates. Carey Price is looking Vezina-calibre strong, at least against first-shots.
But let's not kid ourselves; this is a Caps team that has looked disorganized and uninterested through three games. Head Coach Adam Oates had promised to play a more up-tempo game going into the season, but if last night was any indication, his style could more accurately be described as "loose". Washington's five-on-three penalty kill consisted of Mike Ribeiro racing back and forth between covering Markov and Diaz, which allowed for an easy shot into the crowd, the subsequent rebound, and a wide-open Plekanec for the goal.
There were more mental errors on the second goal, as Markov was left completely unmarked by Jay Beagle on the doorstep. Traditionally, Markov has been the one to float a pass cross-ice to a pinching defender. Last night - at least on that occasion - Markov was the finisher off a rebound.
The Habs' third goal was a result of a heads up play by Rene Bourque, but more so was the product of horrific defending by the duo that was supposed to be Washington's best. The Habs winger drifted past John Carlson uncontested, and then rather than staying with his man, Karl Alzner raced at Bourque - something you WOULD see in an EA Sports game - leaving Brian Gionta wide open for the tip-in.
Following the game, Oates called his team fragile, and questioned the squad's commitment. "It's effort; you've got to want it. You've got to realize the team on the other side wants it to, and you've got to fight through stuff."
He's not wrong. At times the Caps looked lazy and uninterested. But they also lacked structure, something that Dale Hunter was quick to implement last year. If you're "not going to do the Rocky speech" - Oates was clear he wouldn't - you've got to make sure your players are ready tactically, and they weren't.
Speaking of structure, there was one aspect of the Canadiens' game that I found particularly positive. Therrien seems to have emphasized the importance of carrying the puck into the zone. Considering the skill the Habs possess in that area, even without Gomez, it's a good sign for the future. While it seems like the powerplay will re-emerge as this club's bread-and-butter, its even strength play should be significantly improved from last season.
Ultimately, this game tells us very little about the Canadiens - although I do believe Price needs to control his rebounds much better - and a lot about their competition. The Eastern Conference may not be as strong as it has been in the past, even with most teams improved on paper. We won't know where this group of players truly fits into the picture though until at least their first matchup with the Bruins, which isn't for another six games.
On this night in Washington, however, Galchenyuk and the boys got the job done. They were the more focused, disciplined, opportunistic and energized team. They deserved the win. For me, nearly opening a door onto George McPhee's head at one point was a single - if unintentional - form of rebellion against the team that employs me. On this day, the Caps were my adversary.