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(Nick Wass)
(Nick Wass)

NHL Notebook

Capitals need patience, not changes Add to ...

That 24-hour turnaround between the last game of the first round and the first game of the second round is sweet - and should happen every year. No endless waiting. As it is, the NHL playoffs could still go as late as Jun. 18 - if the Stanley Cup final goes seven games - which makes for one crammed calendar, given that the following week also features Hall Of Fame selection committee deliberations, NHL awards presentations and the annual entry draft.

A couple of observations on those developments, starting with the third point. On Tuesday, in the Globe's sports digest, there were back-to-back stories about the players of the year in the OHL and WHL respectively. The first focused on Tyler Seguin, the odds-on favourite to go first overall to the Edmonton Oilers when the draft goes to Los Angeles for the first time in history. The other featured Jordan Eberle, already Oilers' property, who'd starred for Regina in this year's regular season and was a mainstay on Canada's world junior team.

In a week where 16 shrunk to eight in the NHL playoffs and the Oilers seem a long way from fielding a contender, that summed up two good reasons for hope for last year's cellar dwellers.

Up in the more rarefied air of the contenders, the annual deliberation between who might be the league's dominant player, Alex Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby, seems even more heavily tilted in favour of the latter at the moment.

It isn't just because Crosby is captain of the defending champions, or the player that scored the winning goal in overtime to clinch gold for Canada in the 2010 Olympics. Those are compelling arguments on his side of the ledger.

But Crosby is also the first of the two archrivals to understand that greatness cannot be a singular pursuit in a team sport; and what ultimately forges a player's legacy is his ability to channel his own personal skills into larger team successes.

It cannot be a coincidence that at this early stage of his career, Crosby has done that multiple times - who won the world junior in '06? Right, Crosby and Ryan Getzlaf over Ovie and Evgeni Malkin. Ovechkin, meanwhile, still tries to go all lone-wolf whenever adversity hits, as it did when Montreal Canadiens' goaltender Jaroslav Halak turned in one of those playoff goaltending gems to remember in the opening round and bounced the Caps.

Now, Ovechkin is just 24 and he competes and he cares, so his resume still has lots of room to expand and grow - and probably will, given that Capitals general manager George McPhee has assembled a nice supporting cast around him. Even just the development and natural maturing process of that core group of players - which includes Mike Green and Alexander Semin - will make them better down the road. They may not necessarily even win the President's Trophy every year, which is OK. Sometimes, a little adversity along the 82-game regular-season path is not the worst way to develop grit and poise for the playoffs.

Presumably, Jose Theodore is now out as the Capitals' goaltender, following the expiration of his two-year, $9-million contract. That money will undoubtedly be directed towards signing Backstrom to a contract extension. The Caps should not feel uncomfortable about forging ahead with Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth between the pipes. The young Edmonton Oilers of the early 1980s, to whom they bear a striking resemblance, managed pretty well with a duo of Grant Fuhr and Andy Moog. If there is one commodity that the Caps are lacking, it is the sort of shut-down defensive presence that Hal Gill and Josh Gorges provided for Montreal and that will be available on the open market when the Ottawa Senators determine they cannot sign future UFA Anton Volchenkov to an extension. McPhee will need to do some salary-cap gyrations in order to shoehorn a player of Volchenkov's ability into the line-up, but it should be his summer priority.

The good news is he doesn't need to do a lot to change the Caps from regular-season pretty boys to legitimate playoff contenders. He just needs to make one or two of the right moves.

MORE FIRST-ROUND FALLOUT: The Ovechkin-less second round began last night with the Caps, one of the NHL's marquee teams, on the sidelines long before anyone expected it, but overall, the league - under the influence of truth serum - would probably acknowledge that the second round looks pretty good overall from a marketing perspective.

There are four teams from the Original Six: Detroit, Montreal, Boston and Chicago. There is that popular love-to-hate franchise from Philadelphia. There are those always fascinating underachievers, the San Jose Sharks, a perennial car crash waiting to happen. There are the defending champs from Pittsburgh, featuring that Crosby fellow. Then there is Vancouver and if the conspiracy theorists in Canuck Nation had a vote, which way would commissioner Gary Bettman go if he could undo just one first-round result. Would he keep the Caps alive instead of Montreal? Or perhaps would he have liked to see that major West Coast market in Los Angeles sneak past the Canucks, thus giving the league a presence in both south and northern Calif.

In all the angst and second-guessing relating to Washington's failure, it is worth pointing out that they held massive territorial edges in those three final games and simply couldn't figure out Halak. Sometimes, it goes that way - and that the momentum in a series that looks as if it's going one way can turn in dizzying fashion. My frame of references are usually skewed to the Western Conference - and a time when San Jose's playoff history was not all about failure. In the early days, when the Sharks were new to the league and an expansion hybrid, they rose to the occasion in successive playoff years.

In 1995, one year after eliminating the heavily favored Detroit Red Wings in the opening round, they faced the Calgary Flames again as a long-shot underdog. Calgary, 24 points better in the 48-game regular-season standings, dropped the first two at home by identical 5-4 scores, the second loss coming in overtime. They then went on to reel off three consecutive victories by a cumulative 20-6 margin to go ahead 3-2. Barry Melrose, then a novice commentator for ESPN (it was only two years after the Kings' 1993 trip to the final) pronounced the series over. Good try and all that, but the superior team had a stranglehold on it now - same as Washington supposedly did when the Caps went up 3-1 on the Canadiens. But the Sharks won Game 6 at home and then in Game 7, went to Calgary, got two saves from the knob of Wade Flaherty goal stick in extra time and eventually won in the second overtime period on a goal by Ray Whitney against Trevor Kidd.

The Sharks lost out next round, and that will be the test for Montreal now - to find a way of carrying their first-round momentum into the Penguins' series and knock off Crosby and Co. against long odds.

AND FINALLY: Okay, finally one of those wacky playoff wagers between competing mayors that I'm prepared to report on - and no, it isn't just because I've never had the opportunity to type the words 'Chicago major Richard Daley' into a sports story before. Daley, according to a press release from his office in Chicago, apparently "wagered a package of local food, drink and other products" with his Vancouver counterpart, Gregor Robertson. Daley put a number of food items worth winning: candy, pizza, popcorn, beer, ribs, cheesecake. Just another good reason for Vancouver to topple the Blackhawks this time around.

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