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A Big Difference

by Mike Vogel / Washington Capitals
Fresh out of the lockout that killed the 2004-05 NHL season, the Washington Capitals reassembled a very different group of players at this time two years ago in preparation for the 2005-06 season. A handful of holdovers from 2003-04 were in camp, but a large portion of the roster was comprised of new additions, many of whom were signed in the days and weeks immediately preceding the start of camp.

Twenty of the players on Washington’s 2005 camp roster assembled at a small trailer in the shadows of BWI Airport early on a Friday afternoon in September of that year. They were there to undergo a security screening prior to boarding the team’s charter flight to Carolina for the Caps’ first preseason game that afternoon.

The flight was scheduled to leave at 2:30, but the plane was late in arriving. We were told this was because the plane was being used to shuttle supplies to and people out of the New Orleans area in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It was a hot day, too hot to stand outside. Including coaches, staff and broadcasters, there were about 30 of us shoehorned inside this small air-conditioned space.

The team was finally bused to the plane around 5 p.m. Keep in mind that the game was scheduled to start at 7 p.m. The Capitals landed in Raleigh at approximately 6 p.m., and found a police escort waiting to lead the team bus and the equipment truck to the RBC Center.

While four lanes of traffic impersonated a parking lot, the Caps’ bus went on a rollicking ride down the shoulder of the highway. Even with the sirens blaring in front of it, the bus did not reach the arena until nearly 6:30. As the Caps’ contingent hurriedly filed into the arena, they saw the game’s referees giving several Hurricanes a hands-on tutorial on what would and what would not be a penalty in the “new” NHL that season.

The Caps received no such training; they were too busy getting dressed and getting ready to play. The results were predictable. Washington was whistled for seven minor penalties and a fighting major in the first period alone.

“I was going to say 10 [first-period penalties],” says Brian Sutherby, when reminded of that game. “For guys who are coming back, maybe it’s not so bad. But for guys who are trying to crack the lineup it’s not the easiest way to jump into a preseason game that has a lot of meaning for non-returning guys. That was an interesting one.”

The first of those minors came just 19 seconds after the opening face-off. Carolina scored four power play goals and one shorthanded to roll to a 6-0 win. Washington took 19 penalties on the night, leading to 14 power play chances for Carolina.

“We were so far behind the play in that game,” remembers Glen Hanlon. “We all came back in as a staff and said, ‘You know what? I think they’ve got a chance to win the Stanley Cup.’ [Most] of the peopled predicting the playoffs that year had them out of the playoffs. If you remember, we played them twice [in the preseason] and then we played them twice in the first seven or eight games. And they were just a really good hockey team. From that standpoint, I do remember the game.”

Given the ignominy of that first preseason contest in Carolina two years ago, it was heartening to see a very young Capitals hold its own against a much more experienced Hurricanes team on Sunday. Exactly two years to the date after the 6-0 blowout in its preseason opener, Washington nursed a 2-0 lead into the third period of its preseason debut in 2007 before ultimately falling 4-3 in overtime.

“We’ve commented on how far we’ve come since then,” says Hanlon. “That game [Sunday night] was likely a quicker game than the game we played [here] two years ago, and we dressed a lot of younger players. We handled the pace.”

It’s a very minor and indicator, and since it compares two preseason games two years apart, it’s ultimately meaningless. But it does help illustrate some of the improvement we’ve seen here in Washington since the end of the lockout.
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