Sunday, April 4, 2010

I'm Bad... I'm Nationwide...

Pat and I, along with friends Heather and Dennis, ventured out to Columbus, Ohio this past weekend to take in a Capitals game in a town I've only driven through (many, many, many times on my way out to Indiana, Kansas, Nebraska or further west, for autocrosses). After the March 12th game against the Lightning, we came to an inebriated decision to drive to Tampa Bay for the March 20th rematch, but fortunately, we all sobered up and scrapped that before our credit cards were charged. Instead, Heather and I individually decided that driving the six hours to Ohio would be "smarter" than the fifteen hours to Tampa, and so the idea to go to Nationwide Arena on April 3rd was born. Some discussion, some emails, and voila, we were all set to meet up with an autocrossing friend of mine from Cleveland at the arena on Saturday night.

Heather and Dennis left about thirty minutes ahead of Pat and me, and it took us about the same amount of time to get to the hotel. Monitoring our whereabouts via Twitter and Foursquare, we managed to confuse each other with late and duplicate "check-ins," plus Dennis thought Pat and I had left closer to 11 (instead of the 9:30AM we actually did leave). Needless to say, he was shocked when I tweeted that I was 45 minutes from Columbus, despite the fact that I was driving the famed 400K mile Camaro Z28 1LE that's been affectionately nicknamed the Green Terror for my alma mater's mascot. Pat and I arrived at the hotel about thirty minutes behind Heather and Dennis, and Sean was done autocrossing at National Trail for the day, so he was getting ready to head over as well.

A quick jaunt from the hotel to the Tip Top Kitchen (on a recommendation from contributor and former Washington Times sports writer Corey Masisak) saw all four of us ordering the delicious pot roast sandwich (on a pretzel roll, some of us getting the sweet potato fries as a side, and other getting fried green beans or regular fries). The savory meal would last us through the game until further exploits at the Horn-Guy-recommended "R" Bar after the game.

Nationwide Arena evidently has issues with "printing" tickets ordered via Ticketmaster, and Dennis couldn't retrieve the tickets until after 6PM. Sean arrived while we were waiting for the tickets to be "printed" and we immediately took up spots for warmups while Pat went for refreshments.

We would need the alcohol. Greg Wyshynski, of Yahoo Puck Daddy, had clearly called Columbus the "Central U.S. command center of Jersey Fouls" and he wasn't kidding. From the general foul of wearing a jersey of a team that wasn't playing, to the "Hockey Town" Red Wings #97 jersey, we saw quite a plethora of eye-numbing fouls. However, coupled with the fact that the bunny was wearing a powder-blue Crosby jersey, this chick was the "winn4r" of the pathetic sites we witnessed.

We did get a good view of the warmups, as well as of the game, however. We ended up being near both of the Caps clubs that were in attendance (the Road Crew and the Fan Club), on the end where the Caps were shooting twice.

The theme for the Blue Jackets is "Carry the Flag." It doesn't seem very threatening, especially when coupled with a weak video introduction that was a parody of the "needs more cowbell" SNL skit (here's an old version of it from 2007). This one was a play on the AC/DC "For Those About to Rock" video, and the line was "needs more cannon." This led into a "Live from Columbus, it's Saturday night!" with some of their top players (not the opening lineup, which I think would have been more appropriate) mentioned.

The Caps started off very strongly in the first, with crisp passing and a dominant presence in the Blue Jackets' zone. Mathieu Garon was tested early and failed often, letting through two of the first four shots on net. Semin started the scoring, and Flash continued it. However, things were about to change for the worse.

Jason Chimera, coming into Nationwide Arena for the first time since the late December trade that sent Chris Clark to Ohio (along with Milan Jurcina, temporarily), was coming into the BJ's zone at, as he put it, "full speed," and got caught up with defenseman Anton Stralman as he entered the crease. Garon was the unfortunate braking point. While he tried to shake off, Garon would end up being replaced by Caps killer Steve Mason.

A few miscues on the part of the Blue Jackets minutes later would find Mason facing down the league's best power play on a 5-3. Mike Green, after whiffing on a perfectly open net moments previous, would take a sweet setup and send the puck straight in for his 19th of the season. However, the Caps would not score again, and, in fact, the defensive breakdowns would begin almost immediately. With the rest of the second penalty still on the board, Rick Nash and Antoine Vermette would take the puck to Jose Theodore and slide one by to "fire the cannon" (which is damned loud, by the way) and narrow the lead to 2 before the end of the first period.

The cannon was mercifully silent during the second period, and most of the way through the third, not for lack of BJ attempts though. Theo would face 36 shots versus the 23 taken on Mason (and 4 on Garon), and he'd stop all but two, including a flurry of shots during a 5-on-3 situation caused by a Chimera cross-check followed closely by a Shaone Morrisonn tripping call.

Vermette would score even strength on another Nash feed late in the third period, but Theo would hold off the rest of the onslaught and as a result, take the first star of the game. It was a too-exciting finish to what should have been a routine win for the league-leading Capitals. Yet, another mediocre game -- and -2 finish! -- for Alex Ovechkin and more disinterested play for countryman Alex Semin would be part of the problem. With Brooks Laich back in the lineup, albeit with a college-style cage, some of the weak points of the penalty kill and the power play units have been shored up -- let's face it, Jason Chimera was not a good replacement for the Iron Man -- but even Laich wasn't up to the task of cracking Mason beyond that one Green tally.

RJ Umberger would make some disparaging remarks about the Capitals' post-season chances in the press conference after the game, saying that Washington doesn't "play right" and that no Western Conference team would be outmatched by them. However, no other Eastern Conference team has a better record against the West than Washington, so if not the Capitals, then who should face the best of the West for the Stanley Cup? Maybe Umberger is a bit bothered by his team being out of the playoff picture in the West, though teams with worse records in the East are still in contention, and if so, that's a valid concern. Yet, to call out the Capitals -- who would still be in the playoffs even if the wins over supposedly weaker division opponents were left out -- is just being a poor loser on his part. He later tried to backpedal on his comments, but honestly, I'm not surprised about his initial remarks, considering he's a former Flyer.

After the game, we all headed over to the R Bar, which was touted as "the most awesome hockey bar ever" by Sam "The Horn Guy." Sure enough, the place was a mecca of hockey souvenirs, including a Baltimore Skipjacks pennant! Turns out that one of the owners is from the Baltimore area, hence the Skipjacks, Baltimore Colts and Orioles pennants being tucked away in the entrance area. Other cool touches included the penalty box/boards booths, hockey sticks and pucks everywhere, and the 100oz beer towers of Molson Canadian for $18. Well, the $3 PBR 24oz cans weren't bad either.

After chatting with some Pens fans from Waterloo, Ontario (may your French-speaking, Habs-fan children be the bane of your existence!), and Todd, who told us he was one of the guys responsible for the boards at Nationwide, we called it a night. Sean went back to Cleveland (with his own interesting story of the drunk-driver-in-a-mirror-image-car), and the rest of us staggered back to our hotel. All-in-all, it was a great time to be had. Nationwide Arena is a very nice site, and the Columbus fans were very gracious hosts! If the Caps are in Ohio again next year, I think I'm going to have to make the trek again.

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