Bookmark November 26-28, 2008, as a defining 72 hours for the Washington hockey organization this season. Actually, go back and include the final 5:14 of Monday night’s game in Minnesota. Down 4-0 in the final game of a real rough road trip then, the Caps summoned some guile and gumption and made a game of it against the Wild, putting a serious scare in their hosts with three tallies in that game’s final 5-plus minutes. It may have been a turning point in this season.
Still, the Caps boarded a plane home Monday night with their equipment bags and some fresh body bags to boot. They approached Wednesday’s Thanksgiving Eve date with Atlanta staring at the absence of eight players from their regular lineup. Eight. That’s not a number of injuries — that’s Antietam! And included among them were merely two of the best players on the planet at their respective positions (Mike Green, Alexander Semin).
The team had had their hats handed to them the final three games out West — results clearly related to the absences of the likes of Green, Semin, and Sergei Fedorov, as well scores of character/role players; if I’m Bruce Boudreau in the pre-game Wednesday night, I’m approaching one of my netminders seeking a few days’ worth of head-standing. And hoping.
But I’m not, and Boudreau didn’t. Instead General Manager George McPhee and the coach discussed names in Hershey (and not one or two, either) who could potentially help out, and a brigade of Bears was summoned. The recall included merely four of the best and most important performers on the Hershey roster: Karl Alzner, Sami Lepisto, Chris Bourque, and Graham Mink. Then Tom Poti was added to the M*A*S*H list of madness and the Caps had to pry away another Bear, Bryan Helmer.
The sudden rash of callups led to Hershey’s having to tap into the South Carolina Stingray roster (Sasha Pokulok, Michael Dubuc, and the Rays’ signing of a center named Ben Boudreau), as the Bears had their own slate of holiday games to get through this week — games Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights. It wasn’t the swellest time for the Caps to be gutting the Bears’ roster.
But the results this week thus far by the parent and affiliate point to the absence of any such concern. Back in the preseason Capitals’ majority owner Ted Leonsis shared with us his sense of the organizational maturation that’s been achieved in the partnership with Chocolatetown, now in its fourth season. He spoke of the two teams conducting practices that were mirror images of one another “down to the minute.” Their systems are the same. He pointed out how it was management’s expectation that when a player in Hershey was recalled to Washington the transition, far from being jarring and intimidating, would actually be executed seamlessly, with the new player knowing the organizational system within which he’d be competing. It struck me as a remarkable vision when I’d heard it.
We just witnessed its flawless execution this week. En masse.
The Bears on Wednesday night, missing five key cogs, dismantled visiting Binghamton 4-1 — more minutes for Oskar Osala apparently meant just more goals. Last night on the road, with a reassigned Graham Mink not back in time for the trip, the Bears beat their hosts the Albany River Rats 3-2 in OT. And by now you know how the Caps fared Wednesday and Friday. That’s four games between the parent and affiliate, with full-on roster trauma within both, and four Ws.
More work to be done tonight by both. But through a remarkable bit of roster upheaval and a heavy slate of game action the two teams this morning sit in first place in their respective divisions. Credit the character of the men wearing the sweaters, the leadership behind the benches, and the vision at the very top of the Caps’ organization.