Monday, March 24, 2008
The Caps practiced in Arlington before departing for Raleigh for a big Tuesday night tilt against the Southeast Division Carolina Hurricanes.
As noted above, we're delving back into the earlier days of the 2007-08 season as well during this series, so today we'll take a look at a critical move made on Thanksgiving Day of that campaign.
After consecutive 70-point seasons in Alex Ovechkin's first two NHL campaigns, the Caps entered the 2007-08 season with high hopes that they could return to the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in five years. Over the summer, they added forwards Michael Nylander and Viktor Kozlov via free agency and they signed defenseman Tom Poti to bolster the blueline. Center Nicklas Backstrom started his NHL career, too, giving the Caps even more of a boost up front.
Washington won each of its first three games, but quickly swung into a lengthy tailspin in which it won only three of its next 18 (3-14-1). The last of those games, a demoralizing 5-1 home ice loss to Atlanta on the night before Thanksgiving sealed coach Glen Hanlon's fate. At that juncture of the season, buried in the basement of the Eastern Conference standings a quarter of the way through the campaign, the Caps summoned Bruce Boudreau from AHL Hershey as their interim head coach.
For Boudreau, it was a dream come true and the culmination of countless bus rides all over the North American continent. When the call came in, Boudreau had been behind the bench for a total 1,045 regular season games in four different minor leagues - the Colonial Hockey League, the International League, the ECHL, and the AHL - in a coaching career that spanned a decade and a half.
It turned out to be just what the Caps needed, and the move was made just in the nick of time. Despite only coaching the final 61 games of the season, Boudreau went on to win the NHL's Jack Adams Award that season, and the "interim" portion of his title was removed a month later. Boudreau coached the Caps for the next four years and was behind an NHL bench almost continuously until the Minnesota Wild relieved him of his duties last month. Hired as an interim bench boss, Boudreau went on to coach nearly as many regular season NHL games (984) as he had coached in the bush leagues.
Boudreau's Caps won their first game with their new coach, a 4-3 overtime thriller in Philly on the Friday afternoon after Thanksgiving. On his 20th birthday, Backstrom supplied the game-winner in overtime, the second goal of his NHL career and his first multi-point game - he also had two assists - in the league.
From there, the Caps gradually built up steam and slowly made the climb from the basement to the top of the Southeast Division standings, sliding into that spot on the final day of the season.
Here's how we covered Boudreau's hiring. First, I was informed of the impending change as I left the arena on Wednesday night after the loss to the Thrashers, and told that Boudreau would be running practice on Thanksgiving Day. I went home and wrote this piece - without any quotes - and finished it around 3 a.m., posting it later in the morning, after the official announcement.
Bruce Boudreau knew he'd be riding a bus to Philadelphia for a hockey game this Friday. He knew it as soon as the AHL's schedule was released over the summer, showing his Hershey Bears' Friday night date with the Philadelphia Phantoms. And Boudreau will be in Philly on Friday, as scheduled. But he'll be there a day earlier than scheduled, he'll be taking a bus from Washington rather than Hershey, and he'll be coaching the Washington Capitals that afternoon rather than the Bears that evening.
On Thursday, the Capitals announced that they have relieved head coach Glen Hanlon of his duties after nearly four years behind the Washington bench. The 52-year-old Boudreau, who piloted the AHL's Hershey Bears to the Calder Cup championship in 2006 and brought the Bears back to Calder Cup finals last spring, has been named as Washington's interim head coach. The remainder of the Capitals' coaching staff will remain intact, and no timetable has been set for naming a head coach beyond Boudreau's interim status.
Bears assistant Bob Woods will take over the head coaching reins in Hershey, also on an interim basis.
The Caps visit Philadelphia for a 1 p.m. matinee contest on Friday while Hershey is also in town to take on the AHL Philadelphia Phantoms at 7 p.m.
Boudreau becomes the 14th coach in Washington's franchise history, and the 10th of those men to take over in mid-season. He becomes the third Washington coach to go directly from behind the Hershey Bears bench to the Capitals' bench. The last time the Caps tabbed a Hershey coach as their head man in the District was just over 26 years ago when Bryan Murray was promoted from the AHL. Murray stayed on the job for more than eight years and still holds the all-time franchise record for games coached (672) and wins (343).
Boudreau has coached more than 1,000 games in four different leagues, but will be getting his first taste as an NHL head coach. He won an ECHL championship with Mississippi in 1999 and has had a losing record only twice in his 15 seasons as a pro head coach. Boudreau piloted the Bears to a 2-1 home ice win over Bridgeport on Wednesday night, Hershey's fourth straight triumph. The victory lifted the Bears' record to 8-7.
Since taking over in Hershey at the start of the 2005-06 season, Boudreau has fashioned a 103-45-11-16 record as the Bears' bench boss. He led the team to an AHL-best 51-17-6-6 record last season. Seven current members of the Capitals (forwards Tomas Fleischmann, Boyd Gordon, Brooks Laich and David Steckel and defensemen John Erskine, Mike Green and Jeff Schultz) have played for Boudreau in Hershey.
Boudreau had just begun his ninth season as an AHL head coach; he has also piloted the Lowell Lock Monsters and the Manchester Monarchs. He has a 340-216-56-43 record in the AHL.
With the Capitals in the throes of a five-game losing streak - the team's longest of the season - and with just three wins in the team's past 18 games (3-14-1), the team opted to make a coaching change. Washington won three games in a span of four days to start the season, but will have won only three games in the past 45 days when it takes the ice in Philadelphia on Friday.
Hanlon posted a record of 50-83-10 during his tenure as the team's coach, a span that began with a 6-5 win over the Bruins at MCI Center on Dec. 11, 2003. A day earlier, Hanlon had been promoted from assistant coach to take over from the departed Bruce Cassidy.
Just under a year ago, Hanlon had the Caps at their high-water mark during his tenure. Washington was 15-10-7 after a 4-1 win over the Flyers on Dec. 16, and sitting in fifth place in the Eastern Conference standings. A rash of injuries and illness followed, and the Caps stumbled to a mediocre finish in 2006-07.
Despite the addition of some gifted players with strong offensive résumés over the summer, the Caps have struggled to score goals in 2007-08. Only three times in their first 21 games have the Capitals managed to score more than three goals in a contest.
Washington's average of 2.24 goals per game is third lowest in the NHL, and the Caps have never scored goals at a lower rate in any of the team's 33 seasons in the league. Star winger Alex Ovechkin has 14 goals this season, accounting for nearly 30% of his team's total offensive output. Ovechkin has more goals than any three of his teammates combined.
Since hitting that high-water mark in mid-December of last season, the Caps are 19-44-8 in their last 71 games.
One year ago today, the Washington Capitals and the Atlanta Thrashers hooked up in a fight-filled contest on the night before Thanksgiving. In addition to the fights that broke out late in the third period of that game, angry words were exchanged on the benches between Hanlon and Thrashers bench boss Bob Hartley.
A year later, Hanlon and Hartley are no longer at the helms of their respective clubs. Hartley was relieved of his duties last month after the Thrashers started the season with six straight losses. Atlanta general manager Don Waddell took over behind the bench and has led the Thrashers to 11 wins in 15 games.
Ironically, it was a 5-1 win by Waddell's Thrashers over Hanlon's Capitals on Wednesday night at Verizon Center that ultimately sealed Hanlon's fate. The win lifted Atlanta over the .500 mark for the first time this season at 11-10.
After that Thursday practice session, I wrote and posted the following blog entry:
For those of us associated with the Washington Capitals, the last few days have been very long and trying days. Thursday especially was like that, and a few of us were called away from family and friends for several hours on a holiday because a guy that we liked a lot lost his job. And seeing what Glen Hanlon endured up close the last few days wasn't easy for any of us either, but especially not for him or his players, staff, management and ownership.
I'm back home now at the end of a great Thanksgiving dinner with family and friends. It's the end of a very long day with two more very long days looming directly ahead, and with the Caps' next game less than 12 hours away. I've had some to digest all these goings on, and to listen again to the comments of George McPhee, Bruce Boudreau and a handful of Caps players. I should be sleeping but I'm not, so here are a few of the things and comments from today that are kicking around in my head about now. This post will seem disjointed, because that's how my thoughts are.
I've been around here long enough that I date back to Jim Schoenfeld's days as the team's head coach. I can honestly say that this was the only coaching change I've been through were the players were sincerely pained and anguished over the loss of their leader. The players feel like they let Glen down. That's understandable, but they have to move forward and they will.
"I'm disappointed," said team captain Chris Clark. "I take a lot of the responsibility on myself as one of the older guys on the team not coming through for a great guy like Glennie is. I'm taking this really hard. Bruce is going to do a great job; I know it. And we're going to respond. But it's tough losing someone like that. [He was] part of our team and part of my life the last couple of years."
Because of Hershey's geographical proximity to my Baltimore home, I've also had the good fortune to get to know Bruce Boudreau pretty well over the last two and a half years. He's a straight-shooting guy who has quite literally seen and coached and played in thousands and thousands of hockey games. I've watched somewhere upwards of 60 Boudreau-coached games over the last few years dating back to his days behind the Manchester bench, and he's a very cagey coach who has a great feel for the game as it is unfolding.
Bruce is also a great guy with a million terrific stories, because he has played with and/or against and coached or coached against damn near everyone who ever laced them up professionally. The game of hockey is teeming with great people, as I am reminded every time I walk into an arena anywhere on the globe and am greeted by a familiar face. Bruce ranks right up there near the top, and don't take it from me. Take it from two guys who know him much better, Tim Leone and John Walton.
As difficult as it was to have Glen leave, I am happy that Bruce is finally getting a chance that is overdue in my opinion.
Of course, the burning question (okay, one of many) on the minds of you all out there is: Can the guys in the room turn things around and salvage the season?
"We have to win that first game first and that's all we're going to concentrate on right now," says Clark, "maybe just that first period against Philly."
"We think we have the right people in the room," says McPhee, "and we'd like to start winning games and get on a roll. But it has to start with a game [Friday]. We just didn't have the feeling that we were going to have any chance to win the game [Friday] based on the way the last two games went. So we had to make the change. Hopefully it will be enough to inspire us to win [Friday]."
If you listen to our frequent podcasts on washingtoncaps.com, you know that I've been talking myself hoarse about the Capitals needing to put together a sustained winning streak to prove that they're a viable playoff contender for weeks now. At this point, being a viable playoff contender doesn't even enter into the equation any longer. They've got to put together a streak not unlike the one the Atlanta Thrashers are currently enjoying, merely to get back to break-even level. It's been more than six years (Mar. 3-11, 2001) since the Caps have won as many as five straight, which is why I brought it up in the first place, back on Nov. 1. The Caps were 5-6 then.
The streak has to start with one, and my sense is that most of you don't believe this team is capable of such a streak. I understand that thinking. It's been a while since you've had that feeling of going to the rink night after night, believing the Caps would win each night regardless of the opposition. I remember that feeling, but I also remember the last time I had it. It was only about 18 months ago, as I was reminded on Thursday afternoon. More on that in a bit.
I also remembered a day almost four years ago when I was summoned to a similar gathering of press and cameras on the day that Hanlon was named to replace Bruce Cassidy as Caps coach. I remember being eager to speak to Matt Pettinger that day, because he had played for Hanlon in Portland and had good firsthand knowledge of him as a head coach.
Thursday, I sought out Brooks Laich for largely the same reasons. He didn't let me down.
"I think Bouds is awesome," says Laich. "He's very passionate about hockey first and foremost, always watching hockey and learning. I think he'll be great for us. He is an up-tempo guy; he wants us to move our feet. We've got a young group of guys in here and we can skate. He wants us to move our feet and move the puck quick, think on your feet and make hockey reads
"First and foremost, he demands a lot of hard work, but also he's a player's coach and he wants guys to have fun. We might not be in the best situation right now, but we have a great opportunity here. We have a great bunch of guys here, we still believe in ourselves and we believe in Bouds. There might be a couple subtle changes but other than that we'll just keep going forward and hopefully start his tenure off here with a win [Friday]."
"He's very prepared. Even though he's in Hershey, I still talk to him. He watches our games, he likes to follow players he has coached before and he likes to watch our team. I think that will be a great asset for him coming in here. Obviously what he has done in the AHL speaks for itself. His first two years in Hershey he wins a Cup and the next year takes them back to the finals. A lot of the players in here are very familiar with him, so I think it will be an easy transition for us.
"Our record doesn't indicate the talent that we have in this room. For some reason we haven't been able to put it together. Bouds comes in here, he brings a different attitude and maybe it's a wakeup call for us. Glennie did a great job, and he deserved better than what we gave him, for sure. We have to realize that it's a tough day today but also it's a day of moving forward and Bouds is our guy.
"I think we had a great practice today and it starts tomorrow. We'll see how we play tomorrow. Hopefully guys will have an extra jump in their step and respond to the change that has been made. One win could turn to two and then to three. Guys start getting their confidence back and it can really snowball. You look at Bouds' track record and his teams do that. They get on rolls and they're really tough to beat. The reference is when we got on a 10-game winning streak in the playoffs. You show up to the rink and you know what's going to happen. Everyone has a jump in their step and they're having fun. The main thing we have is trust in each other. It's not going to be an easy thing to win eight games out of 10 or whatever, but if you look around here we've got a lot of hard-working guys, great leadership and I think we're capable of it."
That 10-game winning streak Laich referred to was unreal. Different heroes every night. Guys picking each other up. They'd find a way to win every night, and there was a swagger to that team. It was fun. You went to the rink, and you knew they'd win, you didn't know how, but you couldn't wait to watch. Norfolk, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and then two games against Portland. Worthy foes all, and they all fell.
If he can bring that feeling back to the District, he really is Bruce Almighty.
And finally, here's the Postgame Notebook following Boudreau's first game behind the Washington bench, the aforementioned 4-3 win over the Flyers in overtime.
Shave Every Day and You'll Always Look Keen - A quick look at Nicklas Backstrom's face will tell you that his cheeks haven't seen much shaving cream during his 20 years on planet Earth. But Backstrom got a face full of Foamy here in Philly on Friday.
Minutes after setting up the Swedish rookie for the first overtime game-winning tally of his NHL career, Caps left wing Alex Ovechkin snuck up on Backstrom, who is celebrating his 20th birthday today. Ovi wound up and caught the kid flush in the face with a shaving cream pie. After enjoying the first multiple-point game of his 22-game NHL career, Backstrom found himself peeling pillows of the stuff off his face, out of his eyes and off his hair.
Ovechkin was on the receiving end of a Jeff Halpern shaving cream pie in Boston late in the 2005-06 season, on the night he reached the 100-point plateau.
"Halpy [got me]," remembers Ovechkin. "That was shocking. So I got [Backstrom], and he was shocked, too."
Backstrom will take all the shaving cream his teammates can fire his way if they follow three-point efforts and Washington wins.
"It was my best game in points," says Backstrom. "I scored one and had two assists. I actually feel pretty good and the whole team is feeling good, I think. We played pretty good the whole game."
Ever had a better birthday than this one, Nicklas?
"Oh, I don't think so. I think this is my best one."
The B-Team - Caps fans got their first look at Boudreau's inspired coaching on Friday. Few coaches would have put Backstrom between Donald Brashear and Matt Bradley, but that's how Boudreau had them lined up at Thursday's practice and in Friday's game.
"The fourth line was great tonight," says Boudreau. "You tell me a shift where Brash and Brads and Nicklas had the puck in our zone and I won't know it. I thought they were the best line on the ice, because every time they got the puck deep they outhit the other team.
"I think it was great for Nick because he's playing with two big guys, so he is going to be protected pretty good and he's going to have the puck, and they're going to go to the net. I think it's a pretty good combination.
Brashear scored his first goal of the season, and Backstrom his second. The trio combined to put up a plus-4, two goals, two assists and is registered four of Washington's 11 hits on the night. Brashear and Bradley saw limited ice time, but Backstrom logged 13:45 because he saw also saw duty on both special teams.
Four in a Row - Following Ron Wilson, Bruce Cassidy and Glen Hanlon, Washington coach Bruce Boudreau became the fourth straight Caps head coach to win in his first game behind the team's bench. The 14th coach in Caps history, Boudreau's victory raises the first-game record of those 14 men to 7-7 overall.
"It feels kinda cool," says Boudreau, of having an NHL win under his belt. "This has been a good 24 hours. I think the mindset of the team today was that they weren't going to give in. That's all credit to them and the leadership in the room, because it would have been very easy when you've got a 3-0 lead and you seem to be controlling the game and they come back to tie it to just say, 'Oh man, here we go again.' But their mindset was pretty good.
"We talked about adversity and it makes you stronger. The good players overcome adversity. It's easy to sit there and feel sorry for yourself when bad things happen to you. But the mentally strong person is usually the person that succeeds. No matter what happens, it was 1-0 after the first and we were still winning by one after the second. So it was a real positive period for the team."
Symbolic Starters? - Upstairs, we thought Washington's starting lineup trio of Dave Steckel with Boyd Gordon and Brooks Laich was a symbolic threesome of forwards chosen especially by Boudreau to start for the Caps in the new bench boss's first NHL game. All three players were integral cogs on Boudreau's 2006 Calder Cup championship team.
As it turned out, not so much.
"No, I just figured they'd start [Daniel] Briere," Boudreau said sheepishly after the game. "That was my first mistake and the game hadn't even started."
"He wanted to put us together as a checking line because we were familiar with his system and we had played for him in Hershey," relates Laich, "so he wanted us matched up with Briere.
"We got out there and the anthem was going on, and looked at him like, 'Should we change, should we change?' because they didn't have Briere out there. And he [said], 'Ah no, just stay out there on the ice.' It ended up working out. I don't know if he got away from his game plan or not, but it ended up working out for us."
Boudreau had Steckel in Manchester (AHL), he had him in Hershey, and now he is coaching him in Washington. Although he makes clear his affinity for the big pivot, Boudreau also jokes about not showing too much favoritism to Steckel.
"I told Steck, 'We can't even walk out of the same building together.' I don't want people to think you're my son," quips Boudreau. "I know him better than I know everybody, because I've coached him for three straight years.
"But I've got to get to know the other guys so that we're all on an equal keel and so that they feel comfortable with me. They have to have not only a comfort-ability, but they have to believe that when I say stuff, that it's right stuff. The only way to do that is if you convince them that, 'Boy, this guy is on top of his game.' There will be individual meetings more so when the week is done, next week when we don't have any games."
Road Killer - Caps netminder Olie Kolzig has struggled on home ice this season, posting a 2-6 record, a 3.41 goals against average and an .873 save pct. in his eight home starts. Since posting a 2-0 shutout over the Carolina Hurricanes on Oct. 6 at Verizon Center, Kolzig has a 1-6 record on home ice. But he has been money on the road this season.
After Friday night's win in Philly, Kolzig is 4-4 in his eight road starts. He has a 2.35 goals against average and a .923 save pct. on the road in 2007-08.
Minute Man - A key point in the game came midway through the first period when the Caps were forced to kill off a two-man disadvantage of 1:45 in length. Boudreau sent out Gordon, Steckel and Tom Poti to handle the chore. Later, Laich and Matt Pettinger replaced Gordon and Steckel, and still later the original forward duo came out to finish off the kill.
Poti was out for virtually the entire 5-on-3, skating continuously for 1:42 before finally getting a breather with three seconds left. Poti logged 26:57 on the night, with 10:41 of that coming in the game's first period.
Killing With the Kid - Backstrom entered Friday's game with an average of just six seconds of penalty killing time per game this season. He skated 1:22 in shorthanded ice time during Friday's win over the Flyers.
House of Horrors - Friday's win was Washington's third straight victory in the City of Brotherly Love, a feat the Caps have not accomplished in nearly 14 years, since they won three in a row at the old Spectrum from Dec. 9, 1993 to Jan. 29, 1994.
Not Killed by the Power Play - Philadelphia's first goal of Friday's game came on a power play. The 4-3 victory for Washington marked the first time this season that the Caps won a game in which they surrendered a power play goal. The Caps are now 1-11 in games in which they've given up a power play goal.
Second First Against Philly - Caps winger Donald Brashear skated for the Flyers for four seasons before joining the Capitals as a free agent in the summer of 2006. Last season, Brashear scored his first goal as a Capital against his former Flyer teammates on Jan. 9. On Friday, he scored his first goal of the season against his former club for the second consecutive season.
Can't Keep a Good Man Down - The Flyers did a good job of neutralizing Ovechkin for much of the game, but he generated some strong chances in the third period and picked up his lone point of the game with the assist on Backstrom's game-winner.
Ovechkin has now picked up at least a point in 18 of Washington's 22 games this season and has a seven-game scoring streak (five goals, three assists) working. In the four games in which Ovechkin has not scored a point, Washington has a total of just two goals and is 0-3-1.
Friday's four-goal output is the most Washington has managed this season without Ovechkin lighting the lamp.
Rare Deuce - When Chris Clark converted a Viktor Kozlov feed early in the second period of Friday's game with the Flyers, it marked the first time in 323:39 of playing time that the Capitals had a two-goal lead in any game.
300 Club - Congratulations to Pettinger, who played in the 300th game of his NHL career in Philadelphia on Friday.
On This Date in NHL History - A pair of notable former Caps netted their first NHL tallies on Nov. 23, both doing so with other NHL teams. Montreal defenseman Rod Langway scored his first NHL goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins on this date in 1977. Former Caps forward Randy Burridge scored his first NHL goal on this date in 1985 against the Flyers, doing so while a member of the Boston Bruins.