Earlier this season, we posted a lengthy piece on Alex Ovechkin's early years in DC and another shorter piece on Nicklas Backstrom's five-year contract extension. In the process of crafting those stories and talking to the subjects themselves and many others, we were reminded of how exciting and thrilling the 2007-08 NHL season was in these parts.
It stands as Ovechkin's career year, it was Backstrom's rookie year, Bruce Boudreau took over behind the Washington bench on Thanksgiving Day, and the Caps made the playoffs for the first time in five years, winning 15 of 19, 11 of 12 and seven straight at season's end to come back from a dismal 6-14-1 start to win the Southeast Division title.
That season and that run into the playoffs augured in the "Rock The Red" era of hockey in DC, the beginning of 11 playoff appearances in a span of a dozen seasons. At this time a dozen years ago, the Caps were in the midst of that wild run. With the NHL's 2019-20 season "paused" for the foreseeable future, we're going to spend the next month looking back at the day-to-day of that remarkable late-season run, revisiting some of our coverage at the time with some fresh hindsight mixed in. On the off days between games, we will revisit some events from earlier in that landmark season. Enjoy!
Friday, March 21, 2008
In the midst of a daunting run of six straight road games - split into a pair of three-game road trips with a couple nights at home in between - the Caps convened for their morning skate at Philips Arena in Atlanta. Having won eight of a dozen games (8-4-0) since the trade deadline, they were feeling fairly good about their overall game, but were still outside the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference, and in need of a big bounce back after Wednesday's 5-0 loss in Chicago.
Washington entered this game only two points shy of the eighth and final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference, and at that stage of the season, it seemed to be their best avenue into the postseason. The Caps still trailed Carolina by seven points with seven games to go, and catching the Canes looked like a daunting task at this juncture.
Friday's game in Atlanta pitted the league's top two goal scorers, as Caps winger Alex Ovechkin entered the contest with 58 goals and Thrashers sniper Ilya Kovalchuk had 50. The Russian duo accounted for two-thirds of the league's 50-goal scorers in 2007-08; Calgary's Jarome Iginla finished the season with 50 on the nose. Ovechkin led the league with a career-high 65 goals and Kovalchuk was a distant second with 52, matching his own career high established in 2005-06.
March 21 versus Atlanta Thrashers at Philips Arena
Time: 7:30 pm
TV: Comcast SportsNet
Radio: 3WT 1500AM, 820 AM and 107.7 FM
Pre-Game: Pre-Cap at 3 p.m. on washingtoncaps.com
Atlanta Thrashers (31-37-8)
Washington Capitals (36-31-8)
Friday night finds the Capitals in Atlanta to conclude their season series with the division rival Thrashers. The Caps will also finish out the first half of six straight road contests in Atlanta. Washington started the season's final road tour with a win in Nashville on Tuesday, but absorbed a 5-0 setback in Chicago on Wednesday.
The word "resilient" has cropped up often this season in conversations concerning the Capitals, and the team will get a chance to display that quality again on Friday. After surrendering four first-period goals and taking itself out of Wednesday's game with the Blackhawks early, Washington must now show amnesia where that previous game is concerned.
"It's very important, that's all I can say," says veteran center Sergei Fedorov, when asked about the Caps' need to put the loss in Chicago behind them. "It's not an easy loss for us but it's very important for us to put it behind us.
"We could have had a better start in the first period. It's just experience, nothing else. We're going to move on after midnight [Wednesday]. We're moving on. It's important to do because the first period was tough for us. We had a couple bad breaks and obviously starts are very important in this building against this team."
With just seven games remaining in the season, the Caps' margin for error in their bid for a playoff berth is slim. Washington brings 80 points into Friday night's match-up with the Thrashers, and will likely need at least 11 or 12 more to secure a playoff berth.
The loss in Chicago ended a four-game Washington winning streak, and stumped the Caps' bid to win five straight for the first time in more than seven years.
"The history of this team this year is that four games in a row winning is the most we've won," says Fedorov. "It's a learning process and obviously we've got to learn to stay at the high level for more than four games."
Carolina downed Florida 2-1 in a shootout on Thursday, so the Hurricanes now hold a commanding seven-point lead over Washington in the division, although the Caps have a game in hand (Friday's game against the Thrashers) and have two remaining games with Carolina.
Washington goes into Friday night's game in 10th place in the Eastern Conference standings, one point behind ninth place Buffalo and two points behind eighth place Philadelphia. The Caps trail seventh place Boston by just three points.
The Capitals' power play is clicking at a rate of 19.7%, the fifth best rate in the league.
As recently as a month ago, the Thrashers were still part of the playoff discussion in the Eastern Conference and they still held out hope of a divisional title. But Atlanta has slipped to 14th in the Eastern Conference just a season after winning its first-ever division title.
Since blanking the Capitals in Washington by a 2-0 count on Feb. 2, the Thrashers are just 5-12-4. Only one of those five wins came in regulation.
Thrashers sniper Ilya Kovalchuk is as dangerous as ever, no matter how well or how poorly his team is faring. Over Atlanta's last eight games, Kovalchuk has scored eight of the team's 19 goals (42.1%) and has had a hand in 12 of 19 (63.2%).
With the Thrashers all but mathematically eliminated from the Eastern Conference playoff chase, Atlanta has been alternating goaltenders Kari Lehtonen and Johan Hedberg. If that pattern holds, Lehtonen will get the start against Washington on Friday.
Atlanta's power play ranks 18th in the league with a success rate of 17.4% on the season. The Thrashers have killed off 78.7% of the opposition's power play on the season, the 28th best rate in the NHL in 2007-08.
Fun Fact: The top two goals scorers in the NHL this season, Washington's Alex Ovechkin (58) and Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk (50) go head-to-head at Philips Arena on Friday.
Kovalchuk and Ovechkin have played in the same game 20 times now, with Atlanta winning 11 times and Washington nine times. Ovechkin has 34 points (18 goals, 16 assists) in those 20 games and Kovalchuk has 27 points (12 goals, 15 assists). In their 20 matchups, Ovechkin has scored a goal in 14 games and Kovalchuk has done so in 11 games. Both players scored a goal in the same game eight times.
Ovechkin and Kovalchuk are the league's co-leaders in hat tricks this season. Each player has three.
Defenseman Ken Klee has a groin injury and is day-to-day.
Center Steve Rucchin has post-concussion syndrome and is out indefinitely.
Center Eric Christenson has a sprained knee and is day-to-day.
Defenseman John Erskine has an undisclosed injury and is day-to-day.
Defenseman Brian Pothier has an upper body injury and is day-to-day.
Right wing Chris Clark has a groin injury and is day-to-day.
Center Michael Nylander underwent rotator cuff surgery and is out 3-6 months.
Center David Steckel has a broken finger and is out 2-3 weeks.
Possible Line Combos and Defense Pairings
17-Kovalchuk, 16-Holik, 27-Thorburn
13-S. Kozlov, 10-Little, 8-Recchi
23-Slater, 11-Perrin, 19-Armstrong
36-Boulton, 12-White, 29-Larsen
8-Ovechkin, 19-Backstrom, 25-V. Kozlov
43-Fleischmann, 91-Fedorov, 28-Semin
53-Laing, 15-Gordon, 24-Cooke
87-Brashear, 21-Laich, 10-Bradley