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Capitals-Ducks meeting had major repercussions

by David Kalan /
The cities of Anaheim and Washington, D.C. sit just under 2,300 miles away from each other, at opposite ends of North America and opposite ends of the National Hockey League.

Given the distance, it is unusual that two places should intersect so glaringly in any situation as they did in the past 30 days of Bruce Boudreau's wild ride, but in the sport of hockey that notion is particularly true. Having always played in opposite conferences, the two teams have faced off a grand total of 25 times in the 17 seasons both have been in the NHL, they have never played more than twice in a season, and on two occasions they went nearly two calendar years without seeing each other.

As a result, the teams have almost no collective history between them whatsoever, but sometimes the quirks of fate make an unexpected crossroad, and starting on the first day of November, and ending on the last, the Capitals and Ducks crossed paths in a way that sowed seeds of change that ultimately left Boudreau tasked with a massive reclamation project that he played a very real part in creating.


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"I wouldn't have laid (odds on it)," Broudreau said when he was introduced as Anaheim's coach Thursday. "If I had a crystal ball this wouldn't have been something that I would have thought was going to happen."

On Nov. 1, the Ducks visited Washington for the fifth stop on a seven-game road trip. At the time Anaheim had been run through the ringer with one of the most rigorous early-season schedules in League history, jackknifing across two continents before coming to Washington for its one game this season with the Caps. Despite the exhausting travel, however, the Ducks weathered the storm well, opening the season 4-1-0 before a slump at the start of their road trip threatened that early success.

By the time Anaheim arrived at the Verizon Center that night, a win was necessary to stop the bleeding, and doing so against a team like Washington would have provided just the right boost at just the right time. Not only were the Capitals a formidable foe, but they had been experiencing an eerily parallel situation. There were no hops across the pond, but the Capitals also had a strong start to the year, winning their first seven games in a row.

But on Nov. 1, they, too, were in need of a win. The Caps had dropped both halves of a two-game swing in Western Canada, and needed to stem the tide of their own slump, which threatened to get deeper when the Ducks jumped out to a 3-0 lead. Still holding on to a two-goal lead in the third, Anaheim looked headed for the win it desperately needed, until Troy Brouwer pulled Washington within one and Nicklas Backstrom flung a rebound into an open net with 42 seconds left to force extra time. Two minutes and 18 seconds into overtime Backstrom came on the scene again to bang a bouncing puck past Anaheim's Jonas Hiller and complete the collapse for an exhausted team that was playing its third game in four nights.

"It was a weird game," Backstrom said afterward. "First half of the game didn't feel like it was emotional. The second half, we were getting better. … I think overall it's a little shocking that we won. Those are big points for us."

Unlike the Ducks, the Caps seemed to have found their antidote, following that win up with a 5-1 crushing of Carolina three days later. But those wins were masking bigger problems, most notably that the offense, in particular Alex Ovechkin, was starting to struggle. Ovechkin's difficulties weren't foreign to Boudreau, who notably benched him during the final minutes of regulation and the first few minutes of overtime in that comeback win over the Ducks.

"I thought other guys were better than him and there was just a chance that other guys might score the goal," Boudreau said in his postgame press conference that night. "I gotta put out the guys that I think are going to score the goal."

Many have speculated that a rift between Ovechkin and Boudreau was created or even widened by the benching, though both have consistently denied it, but starting with Ovechkin and then further on down the lineup it was clear that Boudreau was losing the locker room. The Capitals would win just one of their next seven games, and 36 hours after a 5-1 defeat in Buffalo this past Saturday, Boudreau had lost his job.

After that comeback against Anaheim, the Caps went 4-7-1 in their next 12 games.

On the other side of the country, the man whose team Boudreau's Caps demoralized in the last gasp of his tenure was also in trouble. With just one win in their next 11 games after that collapse in Washington, what had first seemed like an early-season slump for the Ducks turned into a full-throated tailspin. Perhaps even more disconcerting was that the Ducks played seven of those 11 games at home.

The potential for a looming hangover from such a loss wasn't something Ducks coach Randy Carlyle was unaware of at the time. On the contrary, he tackled the need to confront it almost immediately.

"In the end we can't change what happened last night, and our focus is on what's coming, and the next one is the most important one for us," Carlyle said at the Ducks' practice the morning after losing to the Caps. "Our expectations are that we're out to make amends for the way things ended last night. My message is we'll be judged on our performance tomorrow night and our energy and our commitment to getting the job done, because you can't change what happened."

Those amends were never made by Carlyle and his Ducks. Over the rest of his tenure as Anaheim's coach the team went an uninspiring 2-8-2, and in the waning hours of November the man who guided the Ducks to their only Stanley Cup four years earlier was out. Ironically, the move came just moments after a 4-1 win over Montreal in what would be his final night behind the bench, and in a stunning move, Boudreau, who had been let go just over 65 hours earlier, was stepping in to clean up a mess he indirectly helped create.

"At this time, we simply felt a new voice was needed," Ducks GM Bob Murray said after making the hire. "Bruce is a proven winner with a great track record, and we are optimistic we can turn this season around under his leadership."

Boudreau's five-day unemployment -- the time between his last game coached for Washington and his first for Anaheim on Friday -- is the briefest for any coach in League history, and while he has never won a Cup himself, it is difficult to question his coaching bona-fides. He has four consecutive division titles and a Presidents' Trophy to his credit, as well as more wins in his first 300 games than anyone else.

It is very difficult, however, not to notice the peculiarity in Boudreau's move out west where he is charged with turning around the downfall his Capitals hastened a month earlier. That two clubs with very little in common would have experiences so closely paralleling one another makes for one of the more unexpected and ironic coaching changes in League history, and in many ways it seems an appropriate, if not bizarre cap on what was a tumultuous November for both franchises.

It's conceivable that Boudreau, albeit in a much shorter time frame, rendered Randy Carlyle hockey's equivalent of Grady Little, the baseball manager who was famously fired by the Boston Red Sox ostensibly because New York's Joe Torre outmanaged him in Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series. Little was fired again four years later by the Los Angeles Dodgers because none other than Torre was suddenly available. Whether Boudreau's availability prompted Carlyle's firing is anyone's guess.

But if there is anything we can learn from the past month it's that geometry isn't infallible. Sometimes when you least expect it, parallel lines intersect.
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