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!
Thursday, March 20, 2008
Thursday is an off day in Atlanta following a 5-0 smackdown at the hands of the Blackhawks in Chicago on Wednesday night. After a stirring pre-game ceremony to honor Hockey Hall of Fame goaltender Tony Esposito, the Hawks came out all amped up in the first against Washington, which was playing for the second time in as many nights.
Chicago outshot the Caps 18-6 in the first, took a 1-0 lead on Jason Williams' goal at 1:27 of the first and doubled it on Jonathan Toews' power-play goal less than two minutes later. When Toews scored at 3:19, the Hawks were up 2-0 and were outshooting the Caps 8-1. It was one of those nights.
"I just think we had a real stinker," said Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. "We stunk in the first period. When you're getting outshot 18-3 at one point, everybody is playing bad. That's what it was. You get to know a team after a while. They were lethargic, and they didn't have any jump from [Alex] Ovechkin to [Donald] Brashear. There was something missing. There was a gear missing and [the Hawks] played very good. They made us look pretty bad."
The loss ended Kolzig's three-game winning streak, and as it turned out, this was his final game in a Washington sweater, as Cristobal Huet carried the mail the rest of the way, through the final seven games of the regular season and through the Caps' seven-game playoff series with the Flyers. The big guy deserved a better fate; he faced 42 Chicago shots and made 37 saves, but got no support at either end. Chicago's Nikolai Khabibulin - starting for the first time in a month - needed to make only 25 saves to record the shutout.
Boudreau was asked after the game whether he considered pulling Kolzig after the four goals in the first.
"I was talking to Cristobal in between periods," said Boudreau. "It's all on feel. If I had pulled him, was it going to benefit the team? Was it going to get Olie to fight through? I thought quite frankly that he didn't deserve in front of 21,000 people to be pulled. Because they were leaving him out to dry.
"The first goal was a tip over the shoulder rather than a tip down. The second one, arguably a whistle should have been blown on the thing. Even though it was loose, I'm sure the referee didn't see it. And our defensemen didn't block anybody out. The third was a really good shot and the fourth was an open net.
"I thought about it, but I just didn't feel that this was a warranted situation or it this was a situation where it was going to pump up the team by putting Cris in and I thought Cris was tired and he needed a day off. All those things went through my head."
The entire team needed a day off, and with its four-game winning streak at an end, the Caps held meetings at their Atlanta hotel on Thursday in preparation for a key clash against the Thrashers on Friday.
A bunch of us spent Thursday night at an Atlanta sports bar emporium, drinking Sweetwater beverages and watching the Carolina-Florida game with great interest. That one didn't go the Caps' way, as the Canes prevailed 2-1 in a shootout, dealing a harsh blow to the Panthers' own dimming playoff hopes.
Seven games remained for Washington, four on the road and three at home. The Caps were in a position where they could win all seven and still miss the playoffs, or they could win a few - or more than a few - and get in.
As they went into Friday night's game with Atlanta, the Caps were seven points behind frontrunning Carolina in the Southeast Division standings, but they did hold a game in hand on the Canes. The Caps were also in 10th place in the Eastern Conference standings, just two points behind eighth-place Philadelphia. At this stage of the season, with just over two weeks remaining, the Caps had a much better shot of sneaking into the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference than they did of overtaking Carolina. Only 13 points separated the top 11 teams in the tightly bunched Eastern Conference standings.
These are the Eastern Conference point standings at the end of business on March 20 (*denotes division leader):
*Montreal - 92
*New Jersey - 91
Pittsburgh - 91
Ottawa - 89
*Carolina - 87
NY Rangers - 87
Boston - 83
Philadelphia - 82
Buffalo - 81
Washington - 80
Florida - 79
Chicago Blues - A night after the Caps stormed the Nashville Predators with a three-goal outburst in the first period, the host Chicago Blackhawks turned the tables on the Capitals. Chicago scored first on Jason Williams' goal at 1:22 of the first period, and that would prove to be all the offense the Hawks would need. Chicago added three more first-period markers and another in the second and rode a 25-save effort from goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin to a 5-0 win over the Caps.
On Tuesday in Nashville, the Predators rebounded and gave the Caps all they could handle for the game's final 40 minutes. The Caps were able to quell Chicago's attack for the final 40 on Wednesday, but were unable to muster much offense of their own. Brooks Laich and Alexander Semin's third period scoring chances were Washington's best on the night, but Khabibulin denied both with flashy glove saves.
On Semin's bid, Khabibulin dived to his left like a shortstop leaping for a line drive up the middle, snaring Semin's shot just as it was about to enter a seemingly empty net.
Washington was held without a power play goal for the first time in seven games.
No Fast First - Coming into Wednesday's game with the Hawks, the Caps had allowed only three first-period goals in their previous 15 games, outscoring opponents 22-3 in the process. The Hawks managed more goals (four) in 17:54 than Caps opponents had combined to score in the previous 300 minutes of first period time.
Road Woes and Zeroes - The Caps have been whitewashed six times this season, five times on the road.
SBF 53 - Quintin Laing was re-inserted into the Washington lineup for Wednesday's game and he blocked a pair of shots in his 12:34 of action on the night. He now has 51 blocked shots in 38 games and is tied for 17th among all NHL forwards in that department. Among his fellow Caps forwards, only Brooks Laich (52) has more blocked shots than Laing.
Norfolk North - Two years ago when the Hershey Bears won the AHL's Calder Cup championship, they swept the Norfolk Admirals - then the Blackhawks' AHL affiliate in four straight games in the first round of those playoffs. From his years in Hershey coaching the Bears, Caps coach Bruce Boudreau became familiar with many of the young Hawk players.
"I've seen a lot of these guys," he said before Wednesday's game. "A lot of them. It could be almost revisited tonight; Norfolk and Hershey of two years ago. You look at the guys, [Dustin] Byfuglien, [Adam] Burish. [James] Wisniewski played there, [Dave] Bolland last year and you can go down the list of the defensemen. Jordan Hendry is still up. There are a lot of them, and obviously we have an awful lot of guys that played there as well."
Familiar Town - Boudreau played his final NHL games as a member of the Blackhawks in 1985-86, scoring one goal in seven games for Chicago that season. Several of Boudreau's hawks teammates from that season were in the house here on Wednesday: Denis Savard (Hawks coach), Eddie Olczyk (Hawks TV), Troy Murray (Hawks radio) and Rick Paterson.
Boudreau reminisced about that season before the game.
"The one shift I got in Vancouver, I scored," he recalled. "And then we played the next night and I got one shift again, drew a penalty, and we scored the winning goal. That was the last game of the trip and then I came home. On Monday, [then-Hawks coach Bob Pulford] says, 'You played really good, but I'm going to you down anyway.'"
The Chase - This was not a good night for the chase. The Caps lost two points to Carolina, which defeated Atlanta 5-3. Washington now trails the Hurricanes by five points in the race for the Southeast Division crown with seven games remaining. Carolina is at Florida on Thursday.
Buffalo came back from a 4-1 third period deficit to score six unanswered goals in the third and stun the Tampa Bay Lightning, 7-4. A night after the Caps had gone a point ahead of the Sabres, the Sabres hopped back to a point in front of Washington.
The sixth place Rangers won over New Jersey and are now seven points ahead of the Capitals.
Brothers in Arms - Hawks defenseman Brent Seabrook was one of several Chicago players to shine brightly on this night. He logged 26:57 in ice time, picked up an assist and was plus-2 on the evening.
Seabrook is the older brother of Keith Seabrook, the Calgary Hitmen (WHL) defenseman chosen by Washington with the Caps' second-round choice (52nd overall) in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft.
Tony O Night - The Blackhawks had a sellout crowd in the house to witness a stirring tribute to longtime Hawks goalie and Hockey Hall of Famer Tony Esposito. The Chicago organization did itself proud all night long, and longtime Hawk followers were visibly moved and very appreciative of the gesture. Several of Esposito's former Hawks teammates were on hand, and the team surprised Esposito by bringing in his brother Phil for the ceremony.
Almost a Thousand - Esposito dropped the puck for a ceremonial face-off between goaltenders Olie Kolzig of the Caps and Khabibulin. Between the three longtime NHL netminders, they have nearly a thousand victories in the league. Esposito has 423, Kolzig 301 and Khabibulin 269 for a grand total of nearly a grand: 993.
By The Dozen - Twelve different Hawks picked up at least a point on the scoresheet in Chicago's win, and only two (Williams and ex-Cap Robert Lang) had more than one. Williams had a goal and an assist and Lang had a pair of helpers.
35 on 35's Night - Hawks winger Patrick Sharp scored his 35th goal of the season on Wednesday night as the Blackhawks honored Esposito, whose No. 35 sweater was retired and has been hanging in the rafters for nearly two decades.
On This Date in NHL History - Ex-Hawks winger Kenny Wharram - best known as a member of the famed "Scooter Line" during his days here in Chicago - scored his first NHL goal for the Blackhawks against the Boston Bruins on this date in 1954.
Happy Birthday - To hockey legend Bobby Orr, who turns 60 on Thursday. Orr was born Mar. 20, 1948.