10. The Rebuild Is Over. Owner Leonsis uttered this proclamation during the preseason, later claiming that the season’s barometer for success would be qualifying for the postseason. Through the middle of November both seemed delusionally wishful thinking. But when the right guy arrived behind the bench, when the Caps’ skilled young core was encouraged to attack, the team took off, rampaging from last in the league at Thanksgiving to a Southeast Division crown on the regular season’s final Saturday. The right pieces indeed were in place, and the team’s future has never been as promising.
9. Backstrom: the no. 1 Pivot of the Future — and the Present. Really nobody knew what Nicklas Backstrom’s rookie season in the NHL would bring. During last July’s Development Camp, he seemed to struggle a bit with making plays on a smaller sheet. But he looked better at the end of camp than at its start, and by September’s training camp he looked even more adjusted. Like other skilled players in Glen Hanlon’s system, he struggled. Like other skilled players under Bruce Boudreau, he blossomed.
His 69 points on the season represented the second-most prolific rookie season in Caps’ history (behind a certain precocious Russian in 2005-06). Most telling: 60 of his points came in the final 61 games. He adjusted all right. He played his finest hockey of the season when you want a player to — in the postseason. In so doing he defied a long tradition of rookies fading under the rigors of an 82-game season. And he rightfully earned a nomination for the Calder trophy.
8. One Seriously Sorry Sheet. Washington’s never been known to offer a quality sheet of ice for its NHL games, but the matter gained unprecedented urgency when in December team captain Chris Clark spoke with commendable candor to the Washington Post about the indefensible ice at home. This surface wasn’t merely bad aesthetically, it was, suggested Clark, injurious to players. Clark himself lost virtually the entire season to a groin injury. Flyers’ winger Mike Knuble injured his leg when he caught it in a Verizon Center rut in the playoffs. And game 7’s sheet was so ill-prepared that arena workers could be seen repairing it on their hands and knees in the moments before puck-drop — and throughout the game.
Whatever greatly skilled and exciting roster Capitals’ management assembles for the future, it won’t much matter if at home it’s asked to compete on an ability-leveling and integrity-sacrificing surface.
7. Deadline Day Doozies. Trade deadline day was supposed to be quiet for the Caps. It turned out to be anything but. General manager George McPhee engineered a dramatic infusion of postseason experience and skill in areas of weakness on February 26, including securing a no.1 netminder in Cristobal Huet from Montreal for merely a second-round pick in the 2009 Entry Draft. All three players acquired on deadline day played pivotal roles in the season’s final 18 games.
In his Capitals’ debut on February 29, Huet stopped all 18 shots he faced in backstopping the Caps to a 4-0 win in New Jersey. He went 11-2 in his 13 starts for the Caps, winning the final nine games he started. In the biggest game the Caps played in years, Sergei Fedorov, acquired for 2007 second round selection Teddy Ruth, was named the game’s first star in the Caps’ 3-1 win over Florida on April 5, which vaulted the team to the SouthEast title and the postseason for the first time since 2003. He was especially adept in the faceoff circle. Matt Cooke played a less significant part statistically during the stretch run but recaptured his active, pest-like play from years ago in Vancouver night in and night out. All three veterans were credited with providing vital leadership to the young and inexperienced Caps.
6. Mike Green: the no. 1 Gun Arrives. If there was one overarching question confronting the Caps’ blueline heading into the 2007-08 season, it was: is there a no.1 Gun among? If last September you thought there was, you knew something the rest of hockey didn’t. In 2006-07, Mike Green played 70 games for the Caps, tallying just 2 goals and 10 assists. He offered glimpses of high-end promise, but he also seemed years away from becoming consistent and reliable and earning a top pairing assignment. But this past season Green blossomed into a dominant, mature-for-his-years force. He led the entire league in goals by a defenseman during the regular season, and he followed that with a superb playoff series — so much so that Flyers’ head coach John Stevens very publicly made it known that Mike Green was a weapon his team had to strategize to stop. The no.1 Gun on the Caps’ blueline has arrived.
5. AO: The Best Hockey Player on the Planet. Alexander Ovechkin’s hardware-hogging brilliance during 2007-08 earned him broadcasts of “Ovechkin Ovations” on the NHL Network and, more importantly, ascension over the Nova Scotian as the game’s greatest talent. His 65 goals during the regular season were the most scored by a Capital in franchise history, and he became just the 19th player in NHL history to score 60 goals in a season. By the end of the regular season he’d staked unassailable claims to both the Richard and Ross trophies and was a near mortal lock to command both the Hart trophy and the Lester Pearson award for his most valuable performance. At one point no less than the Great One suggested that his seemingly unbreakable record of 92 goals scored in a single season could be within Ovechkin’s visored viewfinder.
4. Canning Glen; Finding the Right Guy Right up the Road. After winning their first three games of the season, the Capitals proceeded to lose 15 of their next 18 and plummet to the very bottom of the NHL standings. While Glen Hanlon may well have been the right coach to preside over the rebuilding Caps beginning not long before the team began its purge of high-priced, under-achieving talent in the 2003-04 season, autumn 2007 seemed to deliver a resoundingly rotten verdict on his ability to advance the team to where management deemed appropriate for 2007-08.
No one would suggest that Hanlon didn’t offer the organization his fullest possible effort. But by late 2007 that effort wasn’t working. “He knew as soon as he saw me this morning,” McPhee told the Washington Post on Thanksgiving day. “He said, ‘I wouldn’t have known what to do today.’ ”
Enter Bruce Boudreau, aka “Gabby.” On Thanksgiving Eve Bruce Boudreau was in his third season behind the Hershey Bears’ bench. He’d enjoyed an auspicious first two seasons there: a Calder Cup title in his first season in Hershey in the spring of 2006 and a return to the finals the following season. He’d won a Kelly Cup title in the East Coast League as well. Still, to many Capitals’ fans, he appeared to be just another “no name” plucked from the farm.
Probably it was with this in mind that Hershey Bears’ Senior Manager for Communications John Walton authored a memorable open letter to Capitals’ fans on the day that Gabby was announced as the new Caps’ coach. “Know this first and foremost,” Walton wrote in his letter. “He’s a winner . . . For what it’s worth, we have seen the magic here. We’re more than willing to share.”
3. Winning 11 of 12, 7 Straight to Close Out the Season and Qualify for the Playoffs. No Capitals team ever performed the way the 2007-08 team did when it mattered most. For the better part of three weeks the team faced a virtually lose-and-you’re eliminated scenario each night. On the road and at home they would simply win and win again and have to keep winning, seemingly unable to better the Carolina Hurricanes for first place in the Southeast.
But through perhaps a sheer force of winning will, they found themselves in a stunning situation late on Friday night, April 4. Carolina that night, leading the Caps by a single standings point, hosted the Florida Panthers, and with a victory would ensure themselves the Southeast Division title and a postseason berth. Instead, Florida pulled the upset, and the following night, at home against Florida, the Caps at last held their playoff fate in their own hands. They defeated the Panthers 3-1.
2. The Ovechkin Contract. An otherwise ordinary day on Thursday, January 10 became anything but when word broke that Alexander Ovechkin was going to remain in a Washington Capitals’ sweater until at least . . . 2021! Ovechkin’s 13-year, $124 million contract represented the richest deal a hockey player had ever signed — indeed, the richest deal for an athlete in Washington sports history.
Perhaps second in importance to securing the once-in-a-generation talent’s services through the prime of his career, the signing also signaled that Washington was no longer a hockey market that a superstar would consider inferior. Washington, already madly in love with its young Russian star, would with this deal have its affection requited.
One other noteworthy item about the signing: Ovechkin did it without an agent.
1. Washington, the Hockey Town. The Caps played to capacity crowds at home for virtually all of the final three months of the season. Washington’s media made the team a front-page, front-of-the-broadcast story — for months. Columnists — plural — in town began attending hockey games and writing about them.
A ticket to a Caps’ game suddenly became a hot commodity: for the team’s last game of the regular season, Saturday night, April 5 against Florida, with a Southeast Division title and a playoff berth on the line, a pair of tickets to the game fetched over $1,000 on Craigslist. Not for Sidney Crosby, for the Florida Panthers.
Better still, when it came time to host a playoff game for the first time in 5 years, Washington hockey supporters gobbled up 99 percent of the tickets, no matter what Pierre McGuire alleged. For three weeks in spring the Verizon Center became a cacophonous sea of red — the loudest that building’s ever been, the 1998 Stanley Cup finals included. No one in their right mind (save perhaps Ted Leonsis) could have imagined the scene just three months earlier.
“It’s Tomorrow,” Mike Vogel poignantly observed on April 6.
A Red Nation has been formed.