I'm not a hockey fan, but I relearn the bare necessities every spring to cheer on the Capitals, because they are the closest thing D.C. has to a contender (RIP 2006 Wizards), and it's fun to jump on the bandwagon for a few months (or weeks) every spring. That's how I wound up at Caps-Bruins Monday night.
My roommate Ed is different. He played hockey for more than a decade growing up, watches every Caps game, and has violent mood swings depending on the results. He's also there to explain anything I don't understand, which helps. With hockey, I understand what is happening when it happens, but why and how is a whole 'nother story.
(Why is it a penalty to shove someone from behind, but not a penalty to nail someone in the face after the whistle? Do we have any reason to think Dale Hunter knows what he's doing? Why don't the Caps have anybody that can knock the shit out of somebody? What's the difference between a well-run power play and not? A goal? Shots? Ed can answer these questions.)
Anyway, when the Caps snuck into the playoffs a week ago, we immediately bought tickets for Game 3 of the Bruins series and hoped for the best. And thanks to an overtime goal from Nicholas Backstrom, we came in riding high, series tied 1-1. Monday's game started with Good Will Hunting on the Verizon Center jumbotron.
Will: Do you like apples?
Smarmy Harvard Douche: "Uhhh... yeah."
[/cut to video]
[/cut to Will Hunting slamming a caps logo against the glass]
HOW YOU LIKE THEM APPLES BOSTON?
[/crowd goes insane]
"LET'S. GO. CAPS. LET'S. GO. CAPS. LET'S. GO. CAPS. [repeat 250x]"
Between that opening and Ovechkin pancaking Dennis Seidenberg off the opening face-off, the first few minutes couldn't have gone any better. I told you the bandwagon was fun.
The actual game, though... That's more just never-ending anxiety, where every opportunity for the other team makes you catch your breath, and every missed opportunity feels like something you may spend the rest of the night regretting. This is how playoff games work in any sport, and the mood swings are addictive, but not necessarily fun. Winning is fun; watching can get pretty stressful. Then, when your favorite team is losing, all the anxiety turns to a sort of helpless agony which turns to anger.
"Let's Go Caps!" turns into "Ref, You Suck!" and the fan in front of me screaming at a Caps player in the final minutes, "Just play hockey you f--kin' coward!".
But before we get there, a couple important points about the hockey experience.
The Music. I was at a Nationals game this weekend, and half the fun at any baseball game is rocking out to Wilson's Ramos' awesome salsa at-bat music and/or making fun of everyone else's choices. But as bad as some batting music is, there's no music on earth more ridiculous than what they play at hockey games. It's either emo rock that all sounds like Creed, or shitty, inexplicable techno remixes of songs you'd never heard to begin with. Like they took Mike Green and Ovechkin's iPods and fused them together. It's so impressively awful that it becomes part of the charm.
Goals. The Caps crowd after a playoff goal is like the crowd after a game-winner in basketball, except instead of happening maybe three times a year, it happened three times Monday night. Since fans have no idea how many they're gonna get or how many they'll need, nothing -- touchdowns, home runs, game-winners -- is more fun than a crowd after a playoff goal.
Fans. During one intermission I was walking around the arena behind two Bruins fans, a 50-something Dad and his son who couldn't have been more than 14 years old. Overheard while we walked: "BOOOOOOO! ... What the f--k are you doing here? Get f--- out of here! ... GO THE F--K BACK TO FENWAY ... F--k the Red Sox and Patriots too! F--k your whole state!"
Note #1: I love sports. #2: Hey! We avoided any homophobia. #3: The kid was pretty terrified, and literally shaking for a second, and, well ... If you're bringing your insecure pre-pubescent son to a playoff game, please don't wear the road team's jersey, because that's just asking for trouble.
(Lest you weep for visiting Bruins fans, there were also hammered Boston fans peppered throughout the upper deck who were respectful all game, and as soon as the Bruins went up 4-3 with a minute left, they became the loudest, Massholiest Massholes to ever Masshole.)
Marchand And Lucic. My friend Muse e-mailed me afterward saying, "If Lucic was an American born basketball player, i have no doubt he would have went to Duke," which sounds about right, and tells you everything you need to know. As for Marchand, after instigating skirmishes all game, early in the third period he got hit with a stick and collapsed to the ice like he'd just been stabbed, setting up a Bruins power play and guaranteeing that I'll hate him for the rest of his career. Both of these guys desperately need their ass kicked, and between them and Tim Thomas, I'm hating the Bruins exponentially more as each game passes. This is how the playoffs are supposed to work, right?
The Bruins went up 3-2 early in the third period, which meant we spent most of the period firmly entrenched on the agony side of the fan spectrum. This is familiar for Caps fans. Even bandwagoners like me. It's how the Montreal series felt two years ago, and the Rangers felt last year. Where everyone's just desperate for a goal, cursing the offense, wondering why Ovi can't just be the best player on earth and do it all himself ... It sucks.
To an openly ignorant fan, hockey looks like barely-controlled chaos, and half the goals just look like accidents of fate. So when you're down one goal and rooting for the right bounce or the right breakdown, it's about as helpless as sports get. It seems completely random.
Then this happened.
An incredible pass off the boards from Nicklas Backstrom leads to Brooks Laich owning Tim Thomas on the finish for a goal didn't seem random at all. That's just an outrageous play at a time when the Caps needed something outrageous. For about four minutes, hockey made sense.
Then came the game-winner from Chara in the final two minutes--his 100 mph shot ricocheted off a Caps stick, which made it a much harder save and ultimately turned it into a goal. So, after two teams playing each other dead even for almost nine periods, a fluke deflection is what makes the difference. I I know putting it on net creates a window for the deflection, but still.
The NHL Playoffs get chaotic every year--with top seeds getting bounced in the first round and seventh or eighth seeds going deep in the playoff--because in seven games, even the best teams are vulnerable to bad bounces or a hot goalie. The past few years, the Caps have been the top seed getting bounced, and now they're the seventh seed playing the favorite to a standstill.
But on either end of the spectrum, it's not always talent that will be the difference between winning and losing. It's not all inexplicable, but it seems like there's more unknown to hockey than any other sport. For every perfectly set-up Laich goal, there's something like Chara's game-winner. Even my roommate couldn't explain what happened on that last goal, just that it happens sometimes.
The Caps goalie said almost the exact same thing:
“The last goal — it’s just a tough break,” Holtby said. “But it came pretty quick off the stick and a perfect deflection. Those are goals that happen.”
Those goals that happen sometimes happen at the worst possible time, and if sports like basketball are where coming up with outrageous plays in crunch time separates winners from losers, that's not always how it goes down in the NHL. All of which is to say, playoff hockey is fun and totally addictive, and I'll keep coming back every spring, and definitely on Thursday night for Game 4. But playoff hockey makes absolutely no sense to me.