Saturday, August 09, 2008

Ten Games That Mattered

We’ve got one last (probably) look back at the 2007-2008 season, and the theme is “Ten Games That Mattered.” They aren’t from among those last dozen games down the stretch when the Caps went 11-1-0 to clinch a playoff spot (ok, one is). It would be too easy on one hand, too hard on the other to pick from among those games. Not all of the games we’re looking at are wins, either. Perhaps not all are obvious for their importance, but this is The Peerless’ take…

Game 3 – October 8, 2007: Washington 2 - at New York Islanders 1

Why did it matter?...12 shots, none for Alex Ovechkin. This would be the third win in a 3-0-0 start, but one had the feeling (certainly in hindsight) that something was amiss. The Islanders, after all, were not a strong team, and yet they outshot the Caps, 31-12. Ovechkin was held without a shot, the only time in the 2007-2008 season it would happen, and only the second time in his career. After three games, the Caps had a total of seven goals on 85 shots. And while the Caps also yielded only two goals on a total of 83 shots, they suddenly – in this Islanders games – were exposed as a team that seemed more fit for the pre-lockout style of hockey…play it close to the vest, don’t give up any chances, look for an opportunity. As one looks back, it was a win, but it also was an indicator that perhaps there was a lack of fit between the philosophy on the ice and the talents of the players being asked to fulfill it.

2. Game 7 – October 20, 2007: Pittsburgh 2 – at Washington 1

Why did it matter?...”I played a hunch.” That was what coach Glen Hanlon said after the game regarding the surprise start of backup goalie Brent Johnson. Johnson played well (20 saves on 22 shots faced), but for the seventh straight game, the Caps could not score more than three goals. They had a total of 14 through those seven games. The power play was 4-for-34. The new guys – Michael Nylander, Viktor Kozlov, and Tom Poti – who were to have injected some offense – had combined for a total 4-6-10, -3. The Caps had now given up their three-win start and were 3-4-0. Even we said at the time it was a game that mattered. And what mattered was that the Caps’ season was disintegrating rapidly before our eyes.

3. Game 21 – November 21, 2007: Atlanta 5 – at Washington 1

Why did it matter?...because it was rock bottom. This was the low point of the Capitals’ season. The Caps defeated the Thrashers on opening night in Atlanta and lost in overtime on November 6th. But this…this was beating a whipped dog. Since the opening run of three wins, the Caps were 3-13-1 coming into this game. Atlanta had won six of seven coming in, and after a scoreless first period, hit the Caps with a two-by-four, scoring five goals in under 23 minutes of clock time. Two of the goals came from Ilya Kovalchuk. Tobias Enstrom had three assists. But there were the faintest glimmers of some themes that would emerge later…asked after the game if he thought the players could turn things around despite being last in the league in points, coach Glen Hanlon replied, “you never stop believing.” That sounded like the title of a song that would become an anthem for the Caps in the months to come, but alas, Hanlon would not be there to see it. This would be his last game behind the Caps bench.

4. Game 22 – November 23, 2007: Washington 4 – at Philadelphia 3 (OT)

Why did it matter?...a coach who had been a minor league lifer stepped behind the bench. At this point, it hardly seemed to matter that Bruce Boudreau, late of the Hershey Bears, has being asked to clean up a toxic dump of a season with a few sheets of paper towels. The Caps were 6-14-1, last in the NHL. Only three times had they managed more than three goals in a game. They’d given up four or more goals in four of the last five. Alex Ovechkin had five goals in the previous six games, but the rest of the club had a total of eight.

In fact, this game started as a microcosm of the season. The Caps got out to a 3-0 lead deep into the second period. But, the Flyers scored two goals late in that second period, then got a late tally from Mike Richards in the third to tie the game, and the “feel-good” story of a Boudreau win in his NHL coaching debut seemed destined to have an unhappy ending instead. But less than two minutes into overtime, Alex Ovechkin drove to the Flyer net, dragging two defenders with him. When Martin Biron made the initial save on Ovechkin’s shot, Nicklas Backstrom swooped into the void, curled the puck onto his forehand, and in one motion roofed it over the sprawled Biron to give Boudreau the win in his debut. It was Boudreau who had (as would often become the case) the money quote after the game…"I just think the mind-set sometimes has got to change, and the culture's got to change. They've got to believe that they're really good players." No one would believe it of a 7-14-1 team that they had “really good players.” They’d be proven wrong.

5. Game 34 – December 17, 2007: at Detroit 4 – Washington 3 (OT/SO)

Why did it matter?...The Caps went to Detroit 7-4-1 in the 12 games since Bruce Boudreau stepped behind the bench. But it couldn’t be said that the wins came against a lot of “quality” opponents. Only two of the seven wins were earned outside of what was thought to be a weak Southeast Division (against New Jersey and in overtime against the Rangers, both at home). On this night, they’d be facing the gold standard for yardstick purposes – the Red Wings, who came into the game 23-6-3 overall, and 14-2-1 at home (they had not lost at home to any team in regulation except Chicago). Perhaps it was the Red Wings taking the Caps lightly, but the Caps took advantage of the situation, withstanding a quick punch in the nose in the form of a Tomas Holmstrom goal at 3:57 of the first and scoring two of their own in the opening period, courtesy of Alex Ovechkin and Jeff Schultz (the latter in the last 30 seconds of the period). Detroit regained the lead with goals by Henrik Zetterbeg and Holmstrom, but the Caps would not relent. After Pavel Datsyuk took a seat in the penalty box after shooting the puck over the glass, Alexander Semin capitalized on the ensuing power play to tie the game. There was no scoring in the overtime session, leaving things to The Gimmick, which Detroit “won,” 2-1, to earn the extra standings point. But against a quality opponent, on their home ice, the Caps played them as evenly as one could expect…65 minutes, and both teams had three goals on 30 shots. It wasn’t a shout, perhaps, but maybe just a suggestion that this team wasn’t nearly as bad as its first 21 games.

6. Game 39 – December 29, 2007: Washington 8 – at Ottawa 6

Why did it matter?...The night before, the Caps lost in overtime at Pittsburgh, 4-3, on a goal by former Cap Sergei Gonchar. What’s more, Alex Ovechkin sustained a cut in his leg that required stitches. The Caps, 8-5-4 under Boudreau and within five games of .500, could have been a snack for the Senators, who usually seem to find a way to score often against the Caps. It was the Caps that got off fast, though, with an Alexander Semin goal 61 seconds into the game. After that, it was the Rocky and Apollo show. Rocky, in this case, was the stitched-up Ovechkin. He scored the next two Caps goals, sandwiched around a Daniel Alfredsson goal for the Senators. And when the Caps and Senators traded goals like haymakers into the third period, Ovechkin scored the hat trick at 13:46. After Mike Fisher scored to close the gap to 7-6, Ovechkin sealed the deal with a 180-foot empty netter for the win. Four goals (on five shots – he hit a post with the other) and an assist represented Ovechkin’s first five-point game of his career (it would not be his last of the season). But more to the point, the Caps did defeat what was (at least at the time) a quality opponent, on their ice, and in a fashion where they had to withstand several comebacks by the Senators. The Caps were still only 15-19-5, but they were now a team to be reckoned with.

7. Game 47 – January 19, 2008: at Washington 5 – Florida 3

Why did it matter?...because, as Bruce Boudreau put it, “we’ve officially reached mediocrity.” The Caps climbed back to .500 (21-21-5), doing so by going 15-7-4 under Boudreau since he took over. Getting there, though, was not pretty. The Caps rocketed out to a 3-0 lead on a pair of goals by Viktor Kozlov around a marker by John Erskine (yes…John Erskine). The three goals came on three consecutive shots. Perhaps feeling a bit fat and happy, the Caps let the Panthers get them all back. However, these being the Caps of January, and not those of October, the Caps regained the momentum and finished off the Panthers on goals by Alexander Semin and Alex Ovechkin. But there was something else, something captured by (of all people) Panther color analyst Denis Potvin on the Florida TV feed as Ovechkin was skating through the Panther zone as if the puck was velcroed to his stick…”The people here – I tell ya – the best crowd here I’ve ever seen here at the Verizon Center; they’re all on their feet. They’re just having a ball watching the great Alexander Ovechkin play, and they can watch him for another 13 years…they talk about highlight reel plays; that was a highlight reel shift by Alexander Ovechkin.” That kind of crowd would figure mightily in things down the road.

8. Game 52 – January 31, 2008: at Washington 5 – Montreal 4 (OT)

Why did it matter?...Good seasons can become great, for a team or a player, in a single game. In this one, the Caps were coming home to finish off a home-and-home against the Canadiens, who defeated the Caps 4-0 two nights earlier in Montreal. This is when stars have to step up, and the Caps’ star did so in a big way. Alex Ovechkin put his stamp on his own personal hat trick – four goals, a broken nose, and a slobberknocker hit on Steve Begin that sent him twirling in the air. Ovechkin also took stitches in his lip for good measure after getting hit with a puck. It was more than his second career five-point game (he added an assist on a goal by Viktor Kozlov), it was the sort of “knock-me-down, and-I’ll-come-back-for-more” performance that catapulted Ovechkin’s season from the very very good to the legendary status. He shot, he scored, he was hit in the boards, hit back, scored some more, and then scored the game-winner in overtime. You could find worse (and less believable) scripts in Hollywood. His second four-goal game of the season made him the first player to accomplish that feat since the 1995-1996 season, when it was done by Peter Bondra and Mario Lemieux. From here on out, Ovechkin would be the prohibitive favorite to win the Hart Trophy as league’s most valuable player. But more than that, it preserved the Caps’ tenuous foothold on .500 (24-23-5).

9. Game 65 – February 29, 2008: Washington 4 – at New Jersey 0

Why did it matter? guys, one in particular. This was the second game for the Caps after the trading deadline at which they acquired goaltender Cristobal Huet, and forwards Sergei Fedorov and and Matt Cooke. Huet and Fedorov dressed for the first time in this game. It would be against an opponent and a goaltender – Martin Brodeur – that historically gave the Caps fits. But Brodeur wasn’t the best goaltender on this night. That would be the new guy wearing ‘38’ at the other end of the ice. Despite the final score, Huet had to be sharp when it mattered, turning away Zach Parise on a breakaway and Jamie Langenbrunner on a point-blank rebound barely a minute apart when the game was scoreless in the second period. Mike Green scored a few minutes later, and the Caps added three in the third to slay Brodeur. For the Caps, it was a win, but one with significance considering the opponent. Not only was Jersey a persistent thorn in the side of the Caps in recent seasons, but it was the first time the Devils were shut out since December 18th. And, the loss in regulation was Jersey’s first in 10 games (7-1-2). It would be hard to quarrel with the opinion that the Caps were by now a pretty good team.

10. Game 71 – March 12, 2008: at Washington 3 – Calgary 2

Why did it matter?...This game from among the last dozen is included, not because it represents a beginning (the first win of the 11 the Caps would earn in the last stretch), but because it represents an ending. Three nights earlier, the Caps lost a second consecutive game in regulation – the first time it had happened under Bruce Boudreau. And, they lost it in especially ugly fashion. Losing to Pittsburgh is never pleasant, but in this instance a 2-2 tie was broken by…Nicklas Backstrom. That’s right, this was the “own goal” game in which Backstrom, trying to fire the puck off the end boards and out of danger from in front of his own net, backhanded the puck past Cristobal Huet and into his own net. Adding insult to the injury, Sidney Crosby was credited with the goal. Fast forward to March 12th, and Calgary came to town with their own star of stars, Jarome Iginla. It could have been the beginning of the end of a sweet story, and it looked like precisely that when Calgary took a 2-1 lead mid-way through the second period. But then, again, the Caps’ star took over. It was Alex Ovechkin scoring the tying goal on a power play late in the second period to tie the game, and scoring again on another power play with just under two minutes in regulation to provide the margin of victory. It also bears noting that this would be the 300th win for goaltender Olaf Kolzig, one that has to be regarded among the most important at a critical time. It was the 11th time in 12 games Kolzig had held a team to three goals or fewer. He would do so one more time in a 4-1 win against Atlanta, his last win in a Capitals uniform.

Even after this win against Calgary, the Caps would find themselves staring up out of a deep hole – seven points behind then-division leading Carolina and four points out of eighth-place and an at-large playoff spot. But the rest, as we know, is history. The Caps went on to win 10 of their last 11 games after the Calgary win, overtaking the Hurricanes to win the Southeast Division and gaining a third-seed for the playoffs. But along the way, there were games that mattered. If you have one that’s not included here, let us know what you think.