Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Ten Stories from 2008 -- Number 1

Number 1. The Big Finish

Sunday, March 9, 2008… The unkindest cut of all.

The Capitals had worked so hard and for so long to put themselves in a position to contend for the last playoff spot. After starting the season 6-14-1, they changed coaches, changed philosophies, and went on a tear, going 26-15-7 to climb within seven points of the Carolina Hurricanes with 13 games to play.

But the Caps had just come off a dispiriting, self-inflicted 2-1 loss in Boston at the hands of the Bruins. And now, the Penguins – those Penguins – were coming to town on a Sunday afternoon to administer the coup de grace and end what flicker of hope remained for a playoff berth.

It looked plenty good for the Penguins, too, when Sidney Crosby scored his 21st goal of the year to give the visitors a 2-1 lead with less than two minutes remaining in the second period.

But there was Alexander Semin getting one back on a 5-on-3 power play with 14 seconds left in the period to tie the game and keep that flicker of hope going. Surely, this would propel the Caps to a win in the final period.

Surely, you jest.

It was a hard-fought third period in which neither team could manage a score in the first 19-and-a-half minutes. But in that last half minute, Nicklas Backstrom found the puck on his stick on a rebound. He fired and scored…

…into his own net.

Only the Capitals, and only against the Penguins, could such a scenario play out so inevitably and so believably. An empty netter seconds later by Jordan Staal provided a final 4-2 margin of victory, and the Penguins had – once, again, and for all – smashed the Caps’ dreams like a sledge-hammer on china.

But then, something happened. Three days later, the Caps came from behind on a pair of power play goals by Alex Ovechkin – the last with less than two minutes to play – to defeat the Calgary Flames, 3-2.

Then they beat Atlanta, 4-1, on a goal by Brooks Laich and Ovechkin working his way to 99 points for the year with a goal and an assist.

Then they took a measure of revenge on the Bruins when Cristobal Huet – the goalie the Caps obtained at the trading deadline for a pack of gum – stopped 39 shots to get the Caps to a shootout. Viktor Kozlov scored the game-winner there, and the Caps had a 2-1 win. The margin between the Caps and Carolina was now five points with nine games to play. The odds weren’t good, but the patient had a heartbeat again.

But just like at the end of the movie, “The Perfect Storm,” here came the big wave that threatened to sink the boat. It took the form of a six-game road trip that would start in a pair of Western Conference cities – Nashville and Chicago.

The first game was promising. Ovechkin hit the 100-point mark on his way to a 1-2-3 night, and Huet stopped 24 of 26 shots in a 4-2 win that enabled the Caps to close to within two points of the eight-seed in the Eastern Conference (Philadelphia) and three points of the top spot in the Southeast Division. After the heartbreaking losses to Boston and Pittsburgh, the Caps were now on a four-game winning streak heading to Chicago, where…

…they had their lunch eaten in front of them, and dinner for good measure. The Blackhawks used the occasion of honoring hall of fame goaltender Tony Esposito to pound the Caps early and often. The home team scored four goals in the first period, three before the game was ten minutes old. It happened so fast, coach Bruce Boudreau probably never had a chance to pull starting goalie Olaf Kolzig to jump start his own team. Kolzig finished the game and took the loss in the 5-0 final. It would be the last game Kolzig would play for the team that drafted him in 1989.

It wasn’t looking a whole lot better for Huet when he returned to the nets against Atlanta two days later. After Ovechkin opened the scoring with a goal – his 59th of the year – in the first period, the Thrashers lit Huet up for three goals in a 12-minute span in the second period. Hockey being a game of three periods, though, there was still the matter of the last 20 minutes. That became the Nick and Alex Show. Ovechkin potted one (his 60th to tie a franchise record and become the first to that mark in 12 years) to start the Caps’ scoring in the period, then Backstrom netted two – the last one coming on a sick from-behind-the-net feed from Ovechkin – to give the Caps the lead. Boyd Gordon added an empty-netter to complete the four-goal comeback and a 5-3 win.

Which brings us to a showdown of sorts. The Caps traveled to Carolina to take on the Hurricanes two points behind Boston for the eighth spot in the East and five points behind Carolina in the Southeast. Carolina scored the first and last goals of regulation, sandwiching goals by the Alexes – Ovechkin and Semin. Overtime came and went without a tally, and it was Gimmick Time. Goalies Cristobal Huet for the Caps and Cam Ward for the Hurricanes traded saves in each of the first two rounds, leaving it up to Eric Staal for the Hurricanes, Viktor Kozlov for the Caps. Staal rang his try off the post past Huet, but Kozlov beat Ward on a wrist shot to earn the extra point for the Caps.

The danger looming now for the Caps was the potential for a let-down a couple of days later in Tampa. A big game against the team they were trying to catch, a shootout win behind them, and now a team struggling to be respectable, let alone win games. It had the earmarks of an ambush. The Caps did have the benefit of scoring first – a shorthanded goal by Brooks Laich late in the first period. But they gave it right back less than a minute later on the same power play as former Cap Jeff Halpern scored with 80 seconds left in the period and just six seconds left to kill on a John Erskine minor penalty. The teams traded goals in the second – the Caps just couldn’t shake the Lightning loose. Then Tampa Bay took the lead in the third on a goal by Michel Ouellet (former Penguin…figures). But Alexander Semin saved at least one standings point by potting the tying goal less than five minutes from the end of regulation. With the clock approaching the mid-way point in overtime, Mike Green split two defenders on his way to the net, but was hooked to the ice. The puck squirted loose behind the net, where Brooks Laich out-worked Shane O’Brien for control. Laich circled out from behind the net to goalie Karri Ramo’s left. He found Tomas Flesichmann standing alone in the slot and slid the puck to him. While his feet slipped out from under him, Fleischmann sent the puck past Ramo and the goalie smashing his stick against the post in frustration as the Caps skated off with a 4-3 overtime win.

All that was left for the road portion of the season and the last of this six-game swing was a visit to Florida. The Caps had trouble with the Panthers to that point with a record of 2-3-1 for the season. What made this game even more dangerous was that Florida was a desperate team facing elimination from the playoff race. However, the Caps methodically dismantled the home team in, if not a dominating performance, than an effective one. Cristobal Huet made a goal by Viktor Kozlov less than three minutes into the second period all he would need, and Mike Green and Alex Ovechkin added tallies in a 3-0 shutout of the Panthers. It left the Caps two points behind Carolina for first in the Southeast and three behind Philadelphia for the last spot in the Eastern Conference. It was time to go home and end this.

The last home stand of the season started against Carolina. With Verizon Center packed to the rafters, the Caps came out to roars from the crowd and Ovechkin to chants of “M-V-P! M-V-P!!” The home team did not disappoint. It was the support troops that got the Capitals off and running – Matt Cooke (obtained from Vancouver earlier in the season) scoring first from Mike Green and Sergei Fedorov (picked up from Columbus at the trading deadline), and then Brooks Laich from Tomas Fleischmann and Viktor Kozlov to give the Caps a 2-0 lead after one period. Scott Walker scored early for the Hurricanes in the second period, but goaltender Cristobal Huet otherwise held the visitors at bay. His efforts were rewarded at the other end of the ice when Alexander Semin netted a power play goal to restore the two-goal lead after two periods. A late goal by Alex Ovechkin cemented the 4-1 win and left the Capitals on the brink of the playoffs in tying Carolina with 90 points…but Carolina still held the tie-breaking advantage with two games left to play.

The Caps entered their penultimate game of the season against Tampa Bay knowing Carolina had won the night before to take a two-point lead in the standings, defeating that same Tampa Bay team, 6-2. The Caps weren’t going to have any nonsense from a team playing in the back half of a back-to-back set of games…well, maybe not. Filip Kuba scored for the Lightning 39 seconds into the game to stymie the momentum of the Caps and their crowd. Less than half a minute later the Caps thought they got it back on a score by Brooks Laich, but the goal was disallowed when a referee ruled that Tomas Fleischmann, who had pushed defenseman Matt Smaby into goalie Karri Ramo, who had wandered out of his crease, was guilty of goaltender interference (a similar play would prove critical – and also go against the Caps – in the playoff series to come against the Flyers, when a goal scored under those circumstances was allowed). Nevertheless, the Caps did get it back on a score by Alex Ovechkin later in the first, then wore the Lightning down and struck for three goals in the final period in the 4-1 win and tie the Hurricanes once more for the top spot in the Southeast with 92 points.

On Friday, the Caps caught the break they finally needed – Carolina lost to Florida, 4-3, despite Panther goalie Tomas Vokoun having to leave the game with back spasms. Craig Anderson relieved him and stopped 26 of 28 shots to open the door for the Caps, who would face Florida – and presumably Anderson – the next night.

If you were there, you will probably remember it as the loudest crowd the Caps played for since moving to Chinatown from Landover. Noise had force – a percussive quality that pounded in your ears and in your chest. It started in warm-ups when the Caps took the ice and the chant “M-V-P! M-V-P!!” started anew for Alex Ovechkin. It exploded with just over seven minutes gone in the first period when Tomas Fleischmann picked up a loose puck in the right wing corner and worked it down the goal line, deking goalie Craig Anderson to the ice. Fleischmann slipped the puck around Anderson and past his right pad to bring the wall of red in the stands out of their seats.

Kamil Kreps would tie the game for the Panthers at the 6:47 mark of the second period – a goal reviewed by video judges to confirm that it crossed the goal line at the far post behind Cristobal Huet – and there the score would remain 1-1, until Mike Green picked up the puck at the Capitals’ blue line with the clock approaching five minutes to play in the period. He moved the puck up to Alexander Semin along the boards just outside the Florida penalty box. Semin then spun and sent a rink-wide backhand pass onto the stick of Sergei Fedorov approaching the Panther line. Federov took three strides and blistered a drive past Anderson to give the Caps the lead once more. Semin would get one of his own on a power play early in the third period to give the home team a two-goal advantage.

At that point, it was a matter of ensuring that the Panthers, not the most explosive offensive team in the league, would be prevented any opportunities to shave that lead. And clamp down is what the Caps did. From the time of the Semin goal at 2:21 of the third period, the Caps allowed the Panthers only five shots on goal, none of them from inside of 20 feet and the last one a desperation drive that traveled 170 feet of ice.

As Cristobal Huet steered that last drive into the corner as time ran out, the Caps poured off the bench, Ovechkin leaping into his goaltender’s arms. Coach Bruce Boudreau and his assistants Dean Evason and Jay Leach hugged one another at the Capitals’ bench, and the fans – an undulating, leaping, screaming sea of red – could finally believe… the Caps were headed to the playoffs as the Southeast Division Champion.

It would mark the first time that a team that had occupied 30th place in the league standings recovered to earn a playoff spot in that same year. It would be the product of the team finishing the season 37-17-7 after a 6-14-1 start. It was made possible by a thought expressed by coach Bruce Boudreau afterwards: "There was never a word of 'We couldn't' or 'We won't' or 'We can't.' It was always pushing through and believing in ourselves. I just hope I wake up tomorrow and look and 'We are in.' This whole season's been a dream."

A dream it was, made real by the persistence and savvy of Ted Leonsis, George McPhee, and the Capitals’ front office, who devised and stuck to a plan to rebuild… by the singular talents of Bruce Boudreau and his staff in coaxing the best out of a band of youngsters with skill to burn, but in need of experience and a steady hand… by Alex Ovechkin in his year for the ages, but also by guys like Alexander Semin and his otherworldly skills with the puck, Brooks Laich and his penchant for scoring timely goals, Mike Green and his end-to-end rushes, Nicklas Backstrom and his year-ahead-of-his-time playmaking skill, Cristobal Huet who was discarded by Montreal to slam the door on opponents in Washington, and by a host of others who contributed in ways big and small to The Big Finish -- the top story for the Capitals in 2008.

What a ride it was.


Anonymous said...

This just made me cry. It was definitely one of the greatest things Ive ever seen in sports, ever. As a Caps fan I will never forget last season and 'the big finish'. With the history of futility that this team has, and the dark years of the rebuild, doing what this team did to get into the playoffs was just unreal, and unbelievable, and yet, there was magic surrounding them and I never gave up hope, and wouldn't stop believing they could make it until they were mathematically out of it. This team is special.

Thanks for writing these stories, and putting in all the work that im sure they required.

Anonymous said...

Awesome series here Peerless. You've got a way with words and it was definitely a year to remember.

Jack Hazard said...

My birthday is on 5 April.

Two years ago, I was sitting in the cheapies watching a 2-1 loss, surrounded by self righteous Sabres fans. It was a disheartening way to end the season (though I did dump the rest of my brother's popcorn over some idiot wearing a Briere sweater.)

What a difference a year makes. I'm not ashamed to say I cried as the seconds wound down in the final game only a year later. That was a great birthday.