NHL playoffs have been lights out.
Frequent readers of the site (all three of them) know that I often talk openly about my sports dorkdom. Every person has a different way in which they experience their favorite sport(s). For me it just so happens to be by immersing myself into that world to the point of what can only be described as binging. Two years ago my obsession was the NBA. Last year it was European soccer. This year it’s the NHL. Naturally I was watching hockey last night like I seem to be every night these days.
I can’t really pinpoint a reason as to why I never fully commit to one sport and stick with it forever. Perhaps it says something about my character and a fear of 100% commitment. Perhaps it’s because I reach a certain ultra-high level of knowledge whereby I can no longer tolerate conversation with the average sports fan. Maybe there just isn’t enough expertise out there when you inhale content at the rate at which I seem to do. Who knows?
But last night I witnessed what should have been the greatest comeback I’ve ever seen in hockey. Only it never happened. Like a funnel cloud that never quite reaches the ground to develop into the full tornado, the losing team last night ended up falling two goals short in a highlight that I’m quite positive didn’t make the evening’s cut on SportsCenter.
So let’s set the stage here. With just over 13 minutes remaining in the third period yesterday, the San Jose Sharks scored one of the weakest goals ever. Already down 4-1, the Washington Capitals seemed to know that they had little chance to win the game and it showed. Obviously a team is at a disadvantage on a power play, but for some reason the lack of effort exhibited on that specific defensive rotation seemed to shine through to me.
Joe Thornton of the Sharks took a cross ice pass from his teammate after they entered the zone, the defender lazily slid over, Thornton just threw the puck at the net hoping for anything, and, because of what appeared to me to be a particularly lazy effort by defenseman Karl Alzner, Patrick Marleau snuck a goal past Braden Holtby. It seems to me that in those situations where the puck is loose in front of the net, the normal protocol calls for the defenseman to absolutely maul the offending opponent, sweeping him away from the net with no regard for human life or body parts. Didn’t happen here. Check it out for yourself.
Game over, or so it appeared. I have no idea why I kept watching.
There was a little back and forth for the next three minutes before Roman Hamrlik (what a name) of the Capitals netted an absolutely astonishing goal, the type that reminds us judgemental sports dorks at home just how talented these athletes actually are.
After intercepting a pass, Hamrlik passed the puck to one of his teammates, who passed it quickly to Marcus Johansson to avoid a collision. The only problem was Johansson was skating with his head down and got lit up by a Sharks player within milliseconds of receiving the pass. Hamrlik seemed to sense the impending car accident and changed his momentum to save the puck from escaping the zone, thus avoiding the offsides call. While he did this he skated through the right slot into space and seemed to come to a conscious “why the f—- not?” conclusion and backhanded the puck as hard as he could at the net.
The replay I’m going to show you here does it absolutely no justice. The box score says he netted it from 47 feet away from the the goal. Not only does he have the strength to backhand the shot into the back of the net from that angle, but he also had a window about the size of fist to squeeze it through while moving in the wrong direction. He sneaks it past two Sharks defenders and one teammate in addition to goalie Thomas Griess, who was helpless to stop the puck from sailing over his glove shoulder after a successfully executed screen. Unfortunately the camera angle from behind the net and the one from Hamrlik’s side of the ice aren’t on the internet to prove to you just how stunning an accomplishment the goal was. This clip will have to suffice in the meantime and you can take my word for it.
As beautiful as the goal was though, it seemed as if it would be just another meaningless goal on another meaningless night in America’s most meaningless major professional team sport. It seemed as if it would be of little consequence, which is somehow unfair. But with less than ten minutes left in regulation, a three goal deficit seemed impossible to overcome.
I don’t really remember the next couple of minutes too accurately. There was an icing, a puck that flew off the ice, a turnover, a freezing of the puck, and then, with almost six minutes remaining in the game, lightning struck. Capitals defenseman Jeff Schultz completed what can only be described as the most perfectly executed screened slap shot goal in the history of hockey. He took a sliding pass across the blue line from a teammate. (Former) Superstar Alexander Ovechkin charged to the front of the net while this happened and took his corresponding defenseman out of the future path of the shot. With the precision, timing, and accuracy of a true professional, Schultz easily converted from distance and things were suddenly very interesting.
The home crowd awoke from a state of drunken slumber, seeming to sense that something special might have been happening. There was a bit of electricity in the air. The Caps started skating faster, finishing their checks harder. The Sharks were starting to wear the nervous look of a team looking to avoid impending disaster. And again, let me reiterate this, they had absolutely no reason to worry. The Sharks were up two goals with 5:51 to play in a game they had completely dominated. There was no reason to believe they would not finish regulation with victory easily in hand. Yet, the Capitals were starting to convince themselves that they were going to win.
Any great comeback seems to always transpire with a mix of hard work combined with a run in with a serious amount of luck/improbability. A fortunate bounce, an inconceivable turnover, an unlikely hero—you’ve seen any one of these events play out on television. After that goal by Schultz, I convinced myself that one lucky break was all that separated me from this rather lackluster Monday night hockey game and a chance at witnessing history. I began scanning the screen hoping to catch the small incident that would trigger the series of events that would lead to the Capitals fourth goal. After that it was a given that they would tie the game and eventually win it, probably in overtime, probably on the stick of Ovechkin (or so I hoped).
Maybe it would be a puck that rebounded off the boards at some unforeseen angle after accidentally hitting the edge of a not so perfectly installed piece of glass. Maybe a Sharks defenseman, feeling a bit self conscious and bit too anxious, would hesitate one second too late in making a normal pass allowing a Capitals defender to intercept and rush towards the goalie. Or maybe Alexander Ovechkin would remind us all why he might be the most physically gifted athlete in all of hockey. I was sure it was going to happen.
Only it didn’t.
The Capitals made a valiant effort. They had a couple of inspired possessions where I was confident they would put one past. The closest they came was on a bizarre turnaround shot by some Capitals player I can’t even remember whereby he took the puck in the Sharks zone facing the opposite way and zipped his body 180 degrees while slinging the puck as hard as he could at the net. Save by Greiss. Score still at 5-3 where it would finish.
I don’t know why I chose to care so much about that game last night. I have seemingly no vested interest in either of the teams. Neither of them particularly captures my eye in the way a team like the Rangers or the Flyers do (I admit I’m a total sap for 24/7, in case you’re wondering). But for some overwhelmingly selfish reason I wanted that comeback last night. I wanted to witness something miraculous. I couldn’t wait to boast about it to everyone on this site today. There’s nothing more satisfying than being the only one of your friends to have watched a great game like the one I had convinced myself was going to play out in that third period.
I felt robbed. Was it a total waste of time though? In my never-ending quest in a search for meaning in somewhat improbable places, I’m going to tell you that it was not a waste of time at all. For twenty or thirty minutes last night I felt alive and inspired and filled with hope in a way you just don’t find in your average nine to five office job. It was great.
And I was once again reminded why watching sports is so great in the first place.
Comeback be damned.
(Editor’s note: it would not have been the greatest deficit ever overcome by a professional hockey team. It appears as though multiple teams have come back to win after trailing by five goals in the third period.)