With the Washington Capitals’ home opener of October 5, 2017, against the Ottawa Senators now complete (featuring a hat trick by Alexander Ovechkin), I found myself thinking of a past opener that took place 12 years ago on that particular date.
On that night, the Capitals played the Columbus Blue Jackets at home. It would be the first time the Caps played in a game that mattered in 550 days, as the 2004-2005 season had been cancelled by a lockout. It was also the night that a 20-year old Ovechkin made his NHL debut after being the first overall pick in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft; a player that experts expected to eventually become a generational player like Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux.
Ovechkin wasted no time making an impact in his first NHL game. On his very first shift, he delivered a body check on Blue Jackets defenseman Radoslav Such that was so hard it dislodged the stanchion between two pieces of plexiglass along the end boards and caused a three-minute stoppage of play.
The first period ended with neither team having been able to score, but Columbus opened the scoring less than seven minutes into the second period on a Dan Fritsche goal, assisted by Gilbert Brule and Tyler Wright. But less than a minute after that, Capitals captain Jeff Halpern retrieved the puck from the boards, passed to Dainius Zubrus, who then passed to Ovechkin, who unleashed a booming shot to score his first NHL goal to tie the game at one apiece.
Three minutes after Ovechkin scored his first goal, Fritsche scored again, putting Columbus ahead 2-1, assisted by Luke Richardson. About twenty seconds later, David Vborny of Columbus took a penalty while Columbus was on a power play, putting the Caps on their own power play as soon as the Caps’ earlier penalty expired. After a series of passes, Caps defenseman Mathieu Biron passed to Halpern, who delivered a layup to Ovechkin, who scored his second goal of the game and the first power play goal of his career. This tied the game at 2-2.
With Adam Foote of Columbus in the penalty box for a double minor penalty, Zubrus scored for the Caps on the ensuing power play with 3:09 left in the second period. He was assisted by Halpern and Steve Eminger, which would complete the scoring for the game. The Caps ended up winning a penalty-filled game that featured a total of 19 minor penalties combined for both teams.
Ovechkin’s final statistics for the game were two goals and one minor penalty taken. He was nominated as First Star of the game, with Fritsche getting Second Star, and Halpern (who finished the game with three assists) receiving Third Star. It was a fantastic debut for Ovechkin, who became the first player in franchise history to score two goals in his NHL debut.
In a post-game interview, Ovechkin said, “It feel very good. I must thank my [teammates] for giving me two excellent passes. It was just a shot. I must only shoot and I score two goals. It’s my first game in the NHL, we win and I score two goals. It’s a nice start.”
The game drew 16,325 spectators which, while less than the capacity of 18,277, was encouraging and was many more fans than who had attended the pre-season games.
Halpern remarked, “The crowd was great. To be able to have more people and feed off that energy was great, especially for a young team. When the crowds are like that, it makes it easier for us to play.”
Ted Leonsis, the team’s majority owner, was also pleased with the turnout, saying, “This was a good crowd. We sold almost 500 tickets in walk-up. I don’t think we’ve ever done that. So there was pent-up demand for hockey.”
By Diane Doyle