Speed Read: Caps-Penguins Series Can Save NHL

It’s Gary Bettman’s wet dream, we’re just living in it.

alexander ovechkin

While NBA Commissioner David Stern sits back and prays for a Cavaliers-Lakers final, a matchup that would deliver LeBron James vs. Kobe Bryant, his NHL counterpart (and former assistant) is soaking in exactly what can happen when a sports two transcendent stars face off in the playoffs … and both deliver on all the potential.

After Washington goalie Simeon Varlamov stole the show with a spectacular save in Game 1, Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby both delivered miraculous games, offering up dueling hat tricks in Washington’s 4-3 win at a raucous Verizon Center. How raucous was it? Well, after you factor in all the Russians on both rosters and an entire arena filled with red uniforms, you definitely could have confused the setting for Moscow circa 1972 (with much cooler scoreboards and free burritos falling from the ceiling, of course).

sidney crosby

As if things couldn’t get better for Bettman and Co., the two stars are even lining up as unlikely heroes/villains. Ovechkin, who plays with more physicality and isn’t afraid to take an occasional penalty, is emerging as a sideline cheerleader, particularly in exhorting on rookie goaltender Simeon Varlamov, a recent Russian import who speaks next to no English. The role — and his growing household profile throughout America outside of sports — has made Ovie an easy hero character, a role he elaborates with agreesive fan interaction, leaping into the boards after goals and tossing pucks, equipment, anything he can get his hands on at fans after games.

That’s a stark contrast to Crosby, who is trying to play a steely leader to the point of taking some of the traditional lighthearted fun out of the games themselves. When fans started throwing hats on the ice after his hat trick, Crosby got the game officials to ask fans to stop it. It might be the only time in hockey history when a player asked fans to support him less enthusiastically.

Add it all together, and hockey finally has a must-see series in the playoffs  between a hockey market that loves its team (Pittsburgh) and a city which suddenly has elevated its franchise to near-Redskins levels.  It’s the dream matchup Bettman wanted, which means he’ll be playing with house money for the rest of the postseason. How often can you say that about hockey?

On the other coast, the road team actually managed to steal a game, although the playoff was in another sport. The Lakers entered their series against the Rockets highly favored to pull out the series in either five or six games. That’s looking a lot harder after a Game 1 loss … at home.

Sure, Yao Ming looked a litle gimpy toward the end of the game, but his team held on.  More importantly, his team’s defense was even better than expected, with Ron Artest and Shane Battier frustrating Kobe Bryant, and the rest of the defense forcing the Lakers into a 2 of 18 performance from behind the 3-point arc.

kobe bryant

Will Houston be able to keep off the L.A. pressure? Who knows, but one thing is certain: the road for the Lakers just got a lot bumpier.

Meanwhile, in a city that could very well host either the Capitals or Penguins next, the Celtics finally showed the wear and tear of the longest seven-game series in NBA history. After finally outlasting the Bulls without extra periods, the team that played more overtime periods in a single series than any other team had in an entire playoffs was run roughshod by a talented and quick Orlando team. The Magic attacked the basket with Dwight Howard, it hit threes and it controlled the tempo of the game.

So how did Orlando only win by five points? Well, that came via a combination of Boston threes, suddenly awakened fierce defense and a sudden lack of shot making in the clutch by the Magic. Make no mistake, this was a full Orlando meltdown, with the Magic’s 28-point third quarter lead whittled down to three in the closing minute.

In the end, Orlando still had enough to win, thanks to some fine inbounding work that got the ball to J.J. Redick.  But if there was ever a win that felt like a loss, it was this one, with the T.D. Banknorth crowd energized by a fierce comeback.

That just moves the burden of the series’ balance squarely into Game 2. If Orlando finds a way to win it, the series is all but over. If Boston jumps out to an early lead and controls Game 2 like it did the fourth quarter of Game 1, well, then Orlando may find itself scrambling to stay in a series it’s already overachieved in out of the gate.

Meanwhile, that other team from the Celtics’ city spent its first game in the new Yankee Stadium a lot like it spent two weekends ago in Boston: beating the Yankees. It wasn’t consistently pretty, but Boston got enough from Jon Lester and its bats off a shaky Phil Hughes to take home a 6-4 victory, it’s fourth straight over the Yankees this year.

jason varitek johnny damon

That’s all fine and good for the Red Sox. After all, they’ll take wins over the Yankees anyway they can get them. Still, just as Boston will be settling in at the new Stadium, they’ll have to hit the road again, the result of a brief two-game stint in New York.

The length of the series just doesn’t feel right. How can Boston open its tenure against the Yankees with only a two-game set? Not only that, the Red Sox then bounce home to host Cleveland, for two games, before facing the Rays again next weekend. Seriously, which scheduling genius at MLB set up the first Boston cameo at Yankee Stadium for a Monday-Tuesday two game set in the middle of the NBA and NHL playoffs? Not only is the length of the series ludicrous, the timing is horrendous, too.

david ortiz

Some games are just more important than others. MLB always contends that’s not the case, but it clearly is. The NBA gets it. The NHL seems like it gets it. The NFL definitely gets it. So why doesn’t MLB get it?

Will Boston take the win? Sure. Will it take the incredibly inconvenient timing of Joba Chamberlain’s start a day after his mother was arrested for dealing meth? Absolutely. Will that make a two-game set at Yankee Stadium retrospectively more defensible for the schedule makers. Sorry Bud Selig, it just doesn’t.

  • Speaking of the Red Sox and Yankees, Ben Affleck swears he’ll burn any Yankees gear given to his daughters as gifts. And he’s serious.

ben afflect sox hat

  • Even after his amazing series against the Celtics, the Bulls have a tough decision with Ben Gordon this summer. So, will they re-sign him? Readers of the Tribune say yes … but only by a 60-40 margin.
  • This photo from EVERY DAY SHOULD BE SATURDAY proves it irrefutably: Terrelle Pryor is never going to transfer. It’s certain.

terrelle pryor ohio state

  • Missouri is likely to start a highly touted freshman quarterback next year. If it’s this one, he’ll already have a wrap sheet.

Which team is more likely to land the second round upset?

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