There was less than a minute left in the game against Toronto when one of the other Washington Capitals found Alex Ovechkin, unguarded, with nothing but ice between him and an empty net.
Another score would be gravy. The Caps led 3 to 1, on two goals by Brooks Laich, and a nifty shot by Ovechkin at the close of the second period. Now, as the Capitals superstar turned toward the Toronto net, he could see Laich streaking down the other side of the rink, ready for the feed that would give him a hat trick.
Instead of passing, Ovechkin took the easy goal himself. He said after the game that he saw a blue Toronto jersey closing on Laich. If so, he has remarkable peripheral vision.
Being a superstar has its prerogatives, as well as its demands. The real greats in sports are selfish, driven, greedy. They want to score, and they know they are paid for spectacular performance. And the Laiches of the sporting world recognize that the Ovechkins are the meal tickets—that the fans paying exorbitant ticket prices do so to see Ovi perform.
Allowances are made. Especially since, aside from Ovi and the other remarkable young Capitals (who are in first place in their division and on a hot streak, despite a rash of injuries), the sporting scene in the nation's capital is so terribly, awfully dismal.
The Redskins are barely mediocre—the basketball Wizards and baseball Nationals among the worst in their leagues. Amid the local team owners, it's the Caps' scrappy and beloved Ted Leonsis alone who has put together a first-class organization and has managed to lure a bona fide superstar to play here.
Of America's world-class cities, is there another whose fans have gone more unrewarded? Or whose stands are so regularly (and shamefully) peopled by the visiting team's supporters? New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago—even Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Detroit—have had champions or dynasties in recent years. Not Washington. It's been 30 years, and a change of name, since the Bullets won the NBA crown. And almost that long since Riggo and the Hogs and Joe Gibbs won their Super Bowls.
Everyone knows why Mark Teixeira snubbed the Nationals and took the Yankees' money: Washington teams are Losers.
Ovi and the gang may change that. The Caps have the fourth-best record in the league. On their home ice, the Caps are 15-1-1 this season. There is no denying they have the talent. And, in a remarkable playoff drive at the end of last season, they showed heart. The injuries could prove to be a blessing, as even younger replacements from the minors are getting NHL ice time and acquiring a taste, and the tricks, for victory.
Ovechkin makes things happen. He lurks, circles, lulls the defense—then stunningly is everywhere, throwing his body, stealing the puck, shrugging off defenders, and there's the red light.
I don't know it, but it's a fair guess that Laich's first goal got past a distracted Toronto goalie, who was trying to keep an eye on Ovechkin, charging from his right, as Laich slipped the puck in from his left.
God forbid there's another Cold War before Ovechkin and his fellow Russians bring D.C. a Stanley Cup. Is it only old-timers like me who watch the Capitals (or "the Red" as they're being called) in their crimson jerseys and see CCCP on their chests?
These Caps play a game of hockey, based on raw talent, young legs, and crisp passes, that Washington fans have not known. You can take that from me, who fell for the team in its beginnings (remember Ace Bailey? Guy Charron?), and recognized far too many of those grizzled old-timers—starting with Yvon Labre—who showed up to honor hall-of-famer Mike Gartner, whose jersey was retired last night.
Will the Caps do it? It's hard to say until the injured return. For all Ovechkin's fire—he's unafraid to hit anybody—the Caps are a finesse team that can still get its butt whipped, as in the one-sided loss to Philly this month. The team will need a hot goaltender in the playoffs, and that role is still up for grabs.
Much will depend on Ovi. For every Wayne Gretzky or Michael Jordan, there is an Allen Iverson, or an Alex Rodriguez, or a Mike Mussina, whose skills sell tickets, but—for lack of a coach or a supporting cast, leadership, or maybe just luck—underperforms at trophy time.
Away from the Caps' downtown rink, the reviewing stands are going up, at the Capitol and the White House, and along Pennsylvania Avenue, for Barack Obama's inauguration. Congress returns next week. Political Washington is about to stage a grand debate about the blessings and drawbacks of the system of creative selfishness we call capitalism, and how it should be bridled, via the cooperative political system we call democracy.
That was the issue on the ice last night. We need our superstars; they need teams.
Should Ovechkin have taken that empty-net goal? Or, in solidarity, for the team, for a greater good, should he have given Laich the honor?