|Alexander Ovechkin elevated his play during the regular season, becoming the first 60-goal scorer in 12 years and capturing the league goal-scoring and points titles.
Instead, Capitals General Manager George McPhee fired his own shot, replacing coach Glen Hanlon with career minor-league bench boss Bruce Boudreau on Thanksgiving morning. The Capitals were 6-14-1 at the time, going nowhere fast.
If you don’t know what happened next, you haven’t been following the NHL. Under Boudreau, a two-time championship coach in the American Hockey League, the Capitals churned out arguably the greatest feel-good story of the post-lockout era.
Led by the affable Alex Ovechkin and their true-to-his-roots coach, who chats with fans during practices and would be fine staying at the highway motel next to the Waffle House, Washington marches into the playoffs as the hottest team in Eastern Conference.
In fact, with little room for error in the last month and a half of the season, the Capitals barely stumbled. They won 11 of their final 12 games during a time when two losses probably would have done them in.
As a result, they ride into their first Stanley Cup Playoffs in four seasons with a Southeast Division title and the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference.
It’s a long way from the halfway point in the season, when they were 14th in the conference.
“The fear of losing is a great motivator,” Boudreau said.
To really dissect the Capitals’ historic run, you have to go back to the afternoon of Nov. 23, 2007. In Boudreau’s first game behind an NHL bench, the Capitals squandered a 3-0 lead at Philadelphia only to come back and win, 4-3 in overtime thanks to a goal from rookie center Nicklas Backstrom, who was celebrating his 20th birthday.
Right from the outset, Boudreau instilled a belief in his team that not only was it capable of making the playoffs, but it could win the Stanley Cup. The Capitals, in turn, never gave up that afternoon, even though the Flyers mounted a ferocious comeback.
Right then, the Capitals turned into a team of destiny.
Yes, they would have their stumbles along the way, such as a trio of three-game winless streaks. Even after fighting their way back into contention, they appeared cooked after back-to-back losses to Boston and Pittsburgh on March 8-9.
The Pittsburgh loss especially was heart-wrenching because Backstrom made the key mistake of firing the winning goal into his own net. The Caps, though, rebounded to win their next four before losing at Chicago, 5-0, March 19.
They have won every game since.
“It might sound funny to people outside our locker room, but we believed the whole time we were capable,” third-line center Brooks Laich said. “People have written us off at various points of the year, but we always had the belief in here. I think we surprised a lot of people and made believers out of a lot of people. There has been letdowns and we always respond the next game. It’s due to Bruce. He’s the No. 1 believer. He thinks we have a chance and right now we have so much confidence. Our games aren’t about what the other teams are going to do. They’re about us.”
Along the way the Capitals needed a lot to go right. It all did.
Ovechkin never slumped en route to his historic season, and McPhee made three stunning trades at the deadline.
In exchange for a 2009 second-round draft pick, a defensive prospect and a struggling forward, the Capitals got a No. 1 goalie (Cristobal Huet), one of the greatest two-way centers of all time (Sergei Fedorov), and a reliable, hard-nosed winger (Matt Cooke).
Last week at a buzzing and red-clad Verizon Center, those three acquisitions were the first, second and third stars of the Capitals’ 4-1 must-have victory against Carolina.
“I think we add a little something, but we are not taking credit away from what the guys did since Bruce came in,” Huet said. “We have had a target since the trade and we’ve been on a mission. It makes it a lot easier to play and compete every night.”
The Capitals completed their mission in style, and now it’s on to the big stage and the bright lights. They have been in playoff mode for a couple of months now, so all they need to do is keep the switch turned on.
It’s easier said then done, but it sure will be exciting to watch them try.
“I think we have a chance to surprise a lot more people,” Laich said.
Contact Dan Rosen at email@example.com.