Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Washington Capitals -- Not All Playoffs are the Same: Part VII

One of the things we have been looking back on over the summer is the history of postseason disappointments and pleasant surprises in the Rock the Red era of the Washington Capitals.  There have been seven postseason appearances by the Caps, and we have reviewed six of them.  Now, the last and the one filled with the most pleasant surprise of all...getting there in the first place.

1.  2008: “We never give up, no matter what happen….”

By the time the 2007-2008 season started, the Washington Capitals had endured the good, the bad, and the uncertain over the four and a half years since their last playoff appearance.  After dropping an opening round series in 2003 to the Tampa Bay Lightning – losing in triple overtime at home in Game 6 – the Caps family worked their way through what might be the five stages of “rebuilding” in modern sports…

Anger.  Team ownership, perhaps caught up in the emotions of the aftermath of the team’s loss to the Lightning, expressed the opinion that “…the market has spoken and I have some real re-evaluating to do on the kind of investments we're going to make in the team, because the city didn't respond. You cannot have a playoff game with 14,000 people with the kind of marketing and consumer focus that we've had." 

Denial.  Despite a 1-7-1-1 start the next season, there were those who thought the team had too much talent to be saddled with that record.  Caps forward Mike Grier said as much…. “"We've got too much talent out there for it to keep going the way it is…"

Realization.  In early December, the Caps lost to the Colorado Rockies, 4-1, their third straight loss that left them with an 8-18-1-1 record that was 14th in the 15-team Eastern Conference.  The Caps then fired head coach Bruce Cassidy in favor of Glen Hanlon.  It was not the last move that the team would make.  
  • In January they traded Jaromir Jagr to the New York Rangers for Anson Carter. 
  • In the space of nine days in February they traded Peter Bondra to the Ottawa Senators for Brooks Laich and a 2005 second round draft pick, then traded Robert Lang (the league’s leading overall scorer at the time) to the Detroit Red Wings for Tomas Fleischmann and a 2004 first round draft pick (later to become Mike Green).
  • On consecutive days in March they traded Sergei Gonchar to the Boston Bruins for defenseman Shaone Morrisonn and both a 2004 first and second round pick (the former later to be Jeff Schultz); then traded Michael Nylander to the Bruins for a second round draft pick.
  • Later in March they traded Carter to the Los Angeles Kings for Jared Aulin and traded Greir to the Buffalo Sabres for Jakub Klepis.
Out with the old (expensive, underperforming), in with the new (cheap, promising).  The Caps were, for all intents and purposes, an expansion team.

Good Fortune.  Tearing out the old structure to the studs and foundation is one thing, but it helps to get some luck along the way, too.  The Caps got that in a big way in the 2004 draft lottery.  Having the league’s third-worst record in 2003-2004, the Caps would have picked third in the 2004 entry draft in the absence of a lottery.  But, with a lottery in place, the ping-pong ball came up “Capitals,” and the team had the rights to draft one of the most highly thought of amateur prospects in recent memory, winger Alex Ovechkin, a player who was already being compared to Mario Lemieux

Uncertainty.  Even with the prodigy from Russia, who scored two goals in his NHL debut in 2005, the Caps were not a very good team and had a lot of work to do, on and off the ice.  In 2005-2006 Ovechkin recorded a 52-goal rookie campaign (third in the league), but the Caps finished last in the Southeast Division and 14th in the Eastern Conference with a 29-41-12 record, making it the first time since 1982 that the Caps finished consecutive seasons without topping 70 standings points.  It did not work out any better the following season.  In 2006-2007, Ovechkin finished with 46 goals (fourth in the league), but the Caps finished 28-40-14, another season not topping 70 points.

And that brings us to the 2007-2008 season.  Despite adding a number of pieces – Tom Poti, Viktor Kozlov, and Michael Nylander (in his second tour with the club) being the principal additions – there were not a lot of prognosticators picking the Capitals to win the Southeast Division or otherwise reach the postseason. There was one prognosticator who had the Caps playing in the spring, but he’s widely regarded as an idiot.  

The consensus view of the Caps being a non-factor in the playoff race was set aside as the season started with three consecutive wins.  However, the NHL season being 82 games in length, there was still ample opportunity for things to go bad.  They did.

The Caps went 3-14-1 in their next 18 games, failing to win consecutive games in the process, ending with an especially ugly 5-1 loss at home to the Atlanta Thrashers on the night before Thanksgiving before an announced crowd of less than 12,000.  Hours later, the Caps relieved Glen Hanlon of his head coaching duties and replaced him with Hershey Bears coach Bruce Boudreau on an interim basis.

It would be nice to say that the change bore immediate dividends, and in a way it did – the Caps beat the Philadelphia Flyers in overtime in Boudreau’s debut.  However, the Boudreau tenure began with the Caps going 3-3-1 in his first seven games.  Enough to stop the bleeding perhaps, the three wins being as many as the Caps had in Hanlon’s last 18 games, but much more would have to be done to drag the Caps out of 15th and last place in the Eastern Conference after that seven-game start for Boudreau and into playoff contention.

Boudreau and the Caps did just that.  Starting with a 6-3 win over the Thrashers on December 8th, the Caps went 40 games without losing consecutive contests in regulation, posting a record of 23-11-6.  However, given the depth of the hole out of which they had to climb, their 32-28-8 record on March 5th was still second in the Southeast Division and 10th in the Eastern Conference.  They were nipping at the heels of those in front of them, though, just three points behind the division-leading Carolina Hurricanes and just two points behind the conference’s eighth-place team, the Philadelphia Flyers, for a wild-card playoff spot.

Along the way in this run the Caps made some additions for a sprint to the finish that seemed unthinkable three months earlier.  General Manager George McPhee sent forward Matt Pettinger to the Vancouver Canucks for forward Matt Cooke, and he sent prospect defenseman Theo Ruth to the Columbus Blue jackets for veteran forward and hall-of-famer in waiting Sergei Fedorov.  In what might have been the most controversial move at the time, though, McPhee sent a 2009 second round draft pick to the Montreal Canadiens for goaltender Cristobal Huet.

The move seemed odd, given that the number one goaltending spot was manned by Olaf Kolzig, who came into the season having held that position for nine years and had a total of 276 wins for the Caps over 15 seasons in all, leading the team to a Stanley Cup final in 1998.  However, the Kolzig of 2007-2008 was showing signs of age.  Less than two months shy of his 37th birthday when the trade was made, he had a record of 21-19-6, 3.03, .888, and did not have a shutout since posting one in his first game of the season back in October.

It was not as if Huet was playing lights out when the trade was made; if he was, the Canadiens might not have parted with him or had the need to do so  (Montreal still finished with the best record in the East).  Before the trade, Huet was 21-12-6, 2.55, .916, with two shutouts.  Good, but not great numbers.

Huet’s tenure in Washington got off to a bumpy start.  He shutout the New Jersey Devils on 18 shots in his first game, but he had to leave his second game -- more often remembered for the 10 goals the Caps recorded in a 10-2 pasting of the Boston Bruins – with back spasms.  Then he lost consecutive decisions in back-to-back games against the Bruins and the Pittsburgh Penguins (the latter a loss coming on Nicklas Backstrom shooting the puck into his own net with less than a half minute to play). 

Perhaps it was the half smokes of DC finally kicking in, though, because Huet then proceeded to play…well, smokin’ hot after that rocky start.  He stopped 39 of 40 shots, plus both shots he saw in the freestyle competition, in his third game against the Bruins in five appearances with the Caps, a 2-1 Gimmick win.  He followed that up with a 24-save win over the Nashville Predators.

At that point, the Caps faced a situation that could have cratered their comeback and their season.  On March 19th, with the Caps providing the competition for the Chicago Blackhawks on a night saluting hall of fame goalie Tony Esposito, the Caps provided little competition for the Blackhawks and no help to Olaf Kolzig, back in goal for the Caps.  The Blackhawks recorded four shots in the first 81 seconds of the game, broke through on their fifth shot, then their eighth shot, and then their 12th shot.  It was 3-0 less than ten minutes into the game and 4-0 by the end of the first period.  Chicago scored another goal 10:19 into the second period and coasted from there to a 5-0 win over the Capitals.  Kolzig was in for all of it, allowing all five goals on 42 shots.  It would be his last game as a Capital.

Huet returned to the nets two nights later in Atlanta and promptly struggled.  The Thrashers spotted the Caps a goal in the first period, then touched up Huet for three goals in the second to take a 3-1 lead into the third period.  Washington got one back on Alex Ovechkin’s  second goal of the game, then they got two goals from Nicklas Backstrom 32 seconds apart to take the lead late in the third period.  An empty net goal by Boyd Gordon completed the scoring in the 5-3 comeback win, and it started the Caps on a 7-0-0 finish to the regular season (Huet playing in all seven games) to pass the Carolina Hurricanes for the Southeast Division title and a three-seed in the postseason.  From that 15th place spot in the Eastern Conference back on December 7th, the Caps went 34-14-6 to end the season.

The Caps drew the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the postseason.  The Flyers, who were the six-seed, finished the regular season with 95 standings points to 94 for the Caps.  The teams split four regular season games, but in a strange twist, all of the wins were registered on the road, the Caps winning twice in Philadelphia and the Flyers doing so twice in Washington.  They also had virtually identical scoring offense (Caps: 2.90 goals/game, ranked 8th; Flyers: 2.99/6th) and scoring defense (Caps: 2.77/T-12th; Flyers: 2.77/T-12th).  It had the look of a long series.

Game 1 started in the strangest of ways, then ended in a most reliable fashion.  If you were betting on which Capital would be first to score a goal in the 2008 playoffs, you might have safely bet on Alex Ovechkin, he of the 65 goals scored in the regular season (a record for left wingers).  Or perhaps Alexander Semin, who finished with 26 goals.  Or even Mike Green, who finished second among the league’s defensemen with 18 goals.  But Donald Brashear?   The former Flyer had just five goals in 80 regular season games, but there he was pouncing on a loose puck to the left of goalie Martin Biron and stuffing it inside the post before Biron could lunge across to glove it down just 3:16 into the game.

The goal might have had more effect on the Caps than on the Flyers, and not in a good way.  Philadelphia tied the game on a Vaclav Prospal goal eight minutes into the period, and then, after David Steckel put the Caps back in front early in the second period, the Flyers scored three goals in less than four minutes to take a 4-2 lead into the second intermission.

A more normal scoring profile then took over to manage the Capitals comeback.  Mike Green scored goals less than five minutes apart early in the period to tie the game, assists by Sergei Fedorov, Alexander Semin, Alex Ovechkin, and Nicklas Backstrom.  The Caps could not get that tie-breaking goal, though, as the game ticked down to five minutes left in regulation.  It would be the Flyers making the mistake, though, not the young Capitals.  With the Flyers going for a line change, Kimmo Timonen held the puck behind the Flyers’ net.  He decided upon a pass up the right side to Jaroslav Modry, but the pass got there just as Alex Ovechkin stepped up.  Ovechkin slapped the puck off Modry’s stick, and when it bounced past Timonen, Ovechkin pounced on it.  He was patient enough to wait for Biron to commit, and when he did, Ovechkin roofed the puck into the net for his first career playoff goal.  It would be the game-winner in the Caps’ 5-4 comeback win in Game 1.

Lost in the celebration of the Game 1 win was the fact that Cristobal Huet allowed four goals on 22 shots, the first time he allowed four goals in a game as a Capital.  It would not be the last.  Huet was strong in Game 2, allowing just two goals on 41 shots, but it was two too many as Biron shut out Washington, 2-0, to send the series to Philadelphia tied at a game apiece.  It was Biron’s third shutout in four games, dating back to the regular season, which he closed with a pair of shutouts.  The “hot goaltender” that haunted the Caps throughout their history was rising again.

Biron was not quite as sharp in Games 3 and 4 in Philadelphia, but he did not have to be.  Huet’s magic was wearing thin.  He allowed five goals on 32 shots in a 6-3 loss in Game 3, then followed that up with a four goals on 46 shots in a 4-3 double-overtime loss in Game 4.  The problem was that first periods were killing Huet, and the Caps.  In the first four games, Huet stopped just 30 of 38 first period shots, a .789 save percentage.

Back in Washington for Game 5, the Capitals’ defense lent a hand in defense of Huet, allowing the Flyers only four shots in the first period.  Huet stopped all of them, and Nicklas Backstrom got the Caps on the board first – the first time they scored first since Game 1 – with a power play goal.  With the Flyers paying close attention to Alexander Semin holding the puck on the left side, Backstrom snuck in low, to the left of Biron, and tapped in Semin’s feed from the opposite side. 

Sergei Fedorov doubled the Caps lead less than two minutes in the second period, and the Caps had their first two-goal lead of the series.  They could not build on that, though, and the Flyers got within one when Vaclav Prospal scored in the last second of a 5-on-3 power play advantage.

When Alexander Semin scored his second of the series on a power play with barely five minutes left, it looked as if the Caps would live to play a Game 6 in Philadelphia.  However, Derian Hatcher scored for the Flyers less than a minute after the Semin goal, and things were tense once more.  Huet slammed the door after that, stopping all six Flyer shots he faced in the last four minutes, and the teams would make good on their date for Game 6 in Philadelphia.

Early on in Game 6 it looked as if the Caps' journey would end in a sea of orange.  Matt Bradley took an interference penalty less than three minutes into the game, and Mike Richards converted the power play opportunity to give the Flyers the lead 3:49 into the game.  Having lost all three games in which they allowed the game’s first goal, things looked bleak for the Caps.  It got worse in the second minute of the second period.  An Alexander Semin cross-checking goal late in the first period carried over into the second period, and Daniel Briere scored with just four seconds left on the power play to give the Flyers a 2-0 lead. 

At that point, Game 6 turned into a microcosm of the Caps’ regular season.  Having dug themselves a deep hole, they slowly and methodically climbed out of it.  Nicklas Backstrom finished a superb three-man rush that started in the other end of the ice with a breakout pass from Steve Eminger behind his own goal line up to Brooks Laich cruising ahead through the neutral zone.  Laich skated down the middle over the Flyers’ line and left the puck for Semin on his left.  Semin fed the puck over to Backstrom, back to Semin, and back to Backstrom one more time for the shot over Biron’s blocker to make it 2-1.

The Caps tied the game with less than two minutes left in the middle period after pressing the Flyers hard in their own end.  After pinning the Flyers in and preventing the puck from exiting the zone, John Erskine fired from the left point.  Biron did not catch the puck in his glove cleanly, and it fell to the ice where Semin grabbed it, circled around the fallen Biron, and wristed it into the back of the net to tie the game.

Early in the third period, the Caps took the lead.  With the Flyers putting pressure on the Caps in their zone, Kimmo Timonen tried to lift a shot to the Washington net.  It was deflected by Ovechkin, the puck sliding to Viktor Kozlov in the high slot.  Kozlov fed the puck out of the zone to Ovechkin streaking up the middle.  Ovechkin skated in and wasted few moves before flipping a forehand past Biron’s glove to make it 3-2, Caps, 2:46 into the final period. 

It would be the Flyers making the fatal error to seal the outcome.  In the 11th minute of the period they took a too many men on the ice penalty to put the Caps on a power play.  The Caps, who had power play goals in four of the five previous games, had drawn a blank in Game 6 with the man advantage.  It took just 22 seconds to remedy that situation.  Sergei Fedorov tried to carry the puck into the Flyer zone, but it rolled off the end of his stick.  The veteran did not give up on the play, though, and pressured defenseman Braydon Coburn into giving up the puck to Brooks Laich along the right wing wall.  Laich curled into the faceoff circle and spied Ovechkin across the ice.  He fed the puck across, and in what would become a signature part of his game, Ovechkin one-timed the puck from the left wing faceoff circle past Biron for the final, 4-2 margin, sending the series back to Washington for Game 7.

Game 7 was the back half of a back-to-back set of games for the clubs, a situation that one might have thought would benefit the Caps, getting the opportunity to fly back into town to sleep in their own beds rather than bus to a hotel.  And, when Nicklas Backstrom scored a power play goal with less than six minutes gone in the contest, it certainly did look good for the Caps.

Joy turned to dread, though, as the Flyers turned a power play goal by Scottie Upshall late in the first period and a goal by Sami Kapanen mid-way through the second frame into a 2-1 Flyer lead.  The Kapanen goal was one – is one – that Caps fans will argue never should have counted.  It started when Martin Biron fed the puck from just outside his own crease to Patrick Thoresen skating down the left side through the neutral zone.  He sent the puck across to Kapanen in the right wing faceoff circle and continued to the net.  There, Thoresen shouldered defenseman Shaone Morrisonn into Huet, and the three players went to the ice in a heap, allowing Kapanen to shoot the puck into an open net to a chorus of boos from fans irate at the call of a good goal.

Ovechkin reset things with a game-tying goal with less than five minutes in the second period.  As a penalty to Steve Downie was expiring to end a Capitals power play, Ovechkin took advantage of a Capital and a Flyer tangled up at the Flyers’ blue line to grab a loose puck, skate into the left wing circle, and snap a shot past Biron’s glove on the long side.

That would be all of the scoring in regulation, Huet and Biron keeping their nets undisturbed in the third period.  In the overtime, just over four minutes in, R.J. Umberger was exiting the Flyers’ zone in front of the players bench.  Tom Poti tried to poke the puck off Umberger’s stick and got his skate instead.  It was little more than a love tap that did not deny a scoring opportunity, not the sort of thing you might expect to see called in overtime of a Game 7 (a point of view written by a Caps fan, to be fair), but Umberger sold it, the referee bought it, and the Flyers had a power play.

The Capitals almost killed it off…almost.  There was a faceoff to the left of Huet.  Sergei Fedorov and Daniel Briere tied one another up on the draw, and Joffrey Lupul chased the puck down below the Caps’ goal line.  He fed the puck around the boards to Mike Richards to turned and fed Briere between the hash marks for a shot.  Huet blocked the drive out to the point where Kimmo Timonen settled the puck and fired.  Huet made the stop, but he looked to his left for the puck when the rebound skittered out to his right.  It was enough time for Lupul to sneak underneath Shaone Morrisonn to backhand the puck into the open net and end the Capitals’ season.

The Caps’ first taste of postseason play in five years seemed to end barely after it began.  But what a journey it was to get there.  Given up for dead in December, a team that was too young to realize it could not come back did just that, with the help of a wily veteran who would end up creating a memory of his own and for Caps fans in the following season in the playoffs. 

This team would be a treat to watch over the last four months of the regular season.  The last two months would be insane.  As the season wound down, and “Don’t Stop Believin’” blared over the Verzon Center loudspeakers after a Caps win, it still did not seem quite possible.  But then the Caps completed their comeback, and as Alex Ovechkin put it in the aftermath of the season’s last game – the playoff clincher for the Caps:
Even the disappointment of a Game 7 loss to a hated rival could not diminish that.  As we wrote at the time:

"They gave us one helluva ride…

A 37-17-7 record after Thanksgiving.

A season for the ages from Alexander Ovechkin

The “young guns” stepping up in a big way to make this their team – Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Mike Green, Nicklas Backstrom – after the club lost its captain, its top center, and a top-four defenseman to injury for more than half the season.

An unexpected year from Brooks Laich, who wasn’t even supposed to be here…or at least the thinking went last summer.

A hockey lifer with a twinkle in his eye finally getting a chance to coach behind an NHL bench, and grabbing that chance by the throat to be considered a potential coach-of-the-year candidate.

A roll of the dice by a general manager with the nickname, “The Undertaker,” to bring hockey royalty, a few sheets of sandpaper, and goaltending insurance to the club for a stretch run that will be remembered long after the handshakes of this series are forgotten.

A sea of red replacing a desert of empty seats.

The experience of sound taking form and substance…

…this morning we’re sad at the result, but not disappointed in this team. Unlike past heartbreaks, when the Capitals team that lost did so as underachievers, this one fought tooth and nail for two months without a hint of quit in them. They grew before our eyes and came within an eyelash of giving us another two weeks (or, who knows…more) of memories. Although it’s small consolation to the players, coaches, staff, and fans of the club this morning, they achieved far more than anyone had a right to expect as we were sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner last November, and for that…

Bless you boys.”

Bless you boys, indeed.  Yours was the most pleasant surprise and memorable effort in the Rock the Red era.

Photo: Len Redkoles/Getty Images North America

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