The Washington Capitals' locker room remained closed for an unusually long time after the team's uninspired 5-2 loss at home to the Edmonton Oilers last night. When the doors opened to the media, there wasn't a player in sight for at least 20 more minutes.
Did the players know the assembled masses cared less about this Edmonton game than they cared about it on the ice? Or were they wary of, thus hiding from, the inevitable barrage of questions about tonight's much-anticipated rivalry game against the Pittsburgh Penguins? A game that arrives as the Capitals are suddenly mired in a three-game losing streak and a rut of bad hockey.
"We haven't been in this position this year where we've lost this many games in a row," said defenseman Mike Green. "[The Pittsburgh game] is a must-win. We can't afford to shoot ourselves in the foot."
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But it is, of course, more than just a statement game for a struggling team or a showdown between conference rivals or the reopening of Patrick Division wounds for these fans bases. It's even bigger than the usual Alexander Ovechkin vs. Evgeni Malkin intrigue and physical play.
It's the first time these teams are meeting since Alexander Semin called out Sidney Crosby on this blog, and that has changed the dynamic of this rivalry, for at least one game. For example, TSN doesn't usually enter the Caps' locker room getting quotes of the team's next game, like it did on Tuesday night.
The Capitals are aware of all of this, but don't necessarily believe there will be any repercussions for what Semin said and its fallout.
From Dmitry Chesnokov's infamous interview with Semin, the full question and quote:
Many people believe the Crosby/Malkin/Ovechkin rivalry is now the Crosby/Malkin/Ovechkin/Semin rivalry. Do you believe you're on that level of hockey stardom at this point in your career?
What's so special about [Crosby]? I don't see anything special there. Yes, he does skate well, has a good head, good pass. But there's nothing else. Even if you compare him to Patrick Kane from Chicago ... [Kane] is a much more interesting player. The way he moves, his deking abilities, his thinking on the ice and his anticipation of the play is so superb.
I think that if you take any player, even if he is "dead wood," and start promoting him, you'll get a star. Especially if he scores 100 points. No one is going to care about anyone else. No one is going to care whether he possesses great skill. Let's say you put someone in front of the net and let him deflect pucks in, and he scored 50 goals; everyone will say "Wow!" and then hand him a $10 million per year contract. That's what they like here.
And in Russia people like beautiful hockey, and not dump and chase. I just don't get it, why when a player is skating up the ice and no one is attacking him, he dumps the puck into the offensive zone and then chases it? Why would you do this if there is no one forechecking you? I understand that if there is someone coming at you and you don't know whether you can get past that player, then you can dump the puck, pass it or shoot. But if not, then hold on to the puck, skate forward, create a chance.
Why would you want to dump the puck and then chase after it and crash into the boards? I don't know. But that's just my opinion.
Tarik El-Bashir of the Washington Post asked Crosby today about the comments and the expectations for tonight's game:
"I wasn't happy with it," Crosby said of Semin's comments. "But there are things that are said all the time. You don't like to hear that stuff, and personally, I didn't like it. But you move on."
When I asked Crosby if he might try to send a message to Semin tonight, he smiled and added, "Not so much. I finish my hits all the time. There's always motivation in these games. There's always a little extra in the air, and that will be the case again tonight."
The teams' first meeting was one such powder keg, as the Capitals rallied from a 3-0 deficit for a 4-3 win in a game highlighted by some intense physical play.
When that sort of play gets too intense, a player like Donald Brashear from the Capitals tends to get involved. Is he worried Semin or Ovechkin may have targets on their backs tonight?
"I don't worry about anything," he said. "We've still got a game to play out there. When we play them, it's usually physical games. Important points. The emotion's going to be there no matter what's been said or what's not been said.
"Sometimes, it's just going to play out. Other times, you expect physicality and nothing happens."
For example, Brashear assumed he'd be fighting someone on the Oilers last night, and it never happened. "Sometimes you go into games expecting a lot. Those are usually the games where nothing happens."
So perhaps the game against the Penguins will be a dud. Perhaps Ovechkin and Malkin won't leave their impressions on the arena boards. Perhaps Jordan Staal won't seek to avenge his brother by playing a Keith Moon solo on Semin. Or, perhaps, there's just too much on the line, too much bad blood spilled for this game not to rise to the expectations.
"[It] depends on what you guys make of it," Fedorov said to a small group of reporters in front of him. "I probably don't want to add to misleading or misspoken about [statements]."
Does he believe that some nasty, physical play is inevitable tonight after Semin's well-publicized comments?
"I don't know, is that a big deal? I don't read newspapers, I guess."
Despite being media deprived, Fedorov was aware enough of Semin's interview to call it into question.
"[He's] not going to be a target. Alex was out of line in being translated. Like any of us, he said in Russian his opinion and it was being wrong translated," said Fedorov, of the comments that, for the record, were never requested to be retracted. "I can guarantee you that, 110 percent. He was wrongly translated."
Does he think the Penguins know that?
"I'm sure they do. They have a couple of Russian players."
So the Penguins will let public criticism of their captain by a rival slide? Bygones be bygones?
"I don't know. I guess we'll find out."