The 2007-08 season was to be a new beginning for the Washington Capitals in many ways. This, for a team that was hoping to earn a playoff berth, after three consecutive last place finishes in the Southeast Division.
The new beginning included:
- New Uniforms: They would wear new uniforms, going back to the colors: red, white, and blue, which had been the team’s original uniform colors. The new design would include stars on the chest and the “t” in Capitals shaped like a hockey stick across the front. The new design would be a more modern touch to the traditional red, white, and blue. The team’s chief marketing office was calling the new uniform design a “brand awakening” and hoping it would strengthen the organization’s bond with current fans, while attracting new ones.
- First Full Year at New Practice Facility: This would also be their first full season of practicing at the Kettler Iceplex facility in Arlington, which had opened less than a year earlier, in November 2006. The team was hoping to earn a playoff berth, after three consecutive last place finishes in the Southeast Division.
- New Players: To help in their quest for a playoff berth, they had signed veteran forwards, Viktor Kozlov and Michael Nylander, as free agents. Nylander was a center while Kozlov was a winger, who could also play center in a pinch. They had also signed defenseman, Tom Poti, in free agency. Their first-round draft choice from 2006, Nicklas Backstrom, had come over from Sweden to join the team, as well. There also was hope that some of the young prospects who had joined the team in recent years, and who were in the farm system, would mature, a hope that was fueled by the fact that the Caps’ farm team in the American Hockey League (AHL), the Hershey Bears, had won the Calder Cup in 2005-06 and were the Calder Cup runner-up in 2006-07.
The team hoped the new players and maturing prospects would help an offense that featured Alex Ovechkin, the number one overall pick in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. Ovechkin had shown every sign of living up to the hype by scoring 52 goals in his rookie season in 2005-06 and following up with 46 goals in 2006-07. The offense also featured two other players who had scored 30 or more goals: Alexander Semin, who scored 38 goals and had 35 assists, and Team Captain, Chris Clark who had 30 goals.
The Caps began the season by beating the Atlanta Thrashers 3-1 at Phillips Arena on October 5, 2007. The game was notable for several reasons. It was Nicklas Backstrom’s NHL debut, where he scored his first NHL point on an assist to Michael Nylander. It was also the game where Ovechkin got clipped in the mouth, needed 14 stitches, and lost a front tooth, which became his trademark, almost immediately. It was also a game Alexander Semin missed due to a sprained ankle that was to dog him for much of the early part of the season. The next day they returned home for their home opener, which was against the Carolina Hurricanes and won that game, 2-0. They won their next game, 2-0, two days later against the New York Islanders. The Caps had started off 3-0 and Caps fans could not help but begin believing the team was headed to a great season.
But they lost their next game on October 12 to the New York Rangers. They followed that up with four losses in a row and were now 3-4. During that time, Semin had returned for the season’s second game but then reinjured his ankle and was out until October 24. Semin returned to the lineup for a game against Tampa Bay, which broke the four-game losing streak. But in the very next game, on Oct 26 against Vancouver, Team Captain Chris Clark was injured by an Ovechkin slap shot near the end of the game, which lacerated his ear and required 60 stitches to repair. He would not return to the lineup until Nov 15. After Clark’s injury, the team lost their next two games but closed October on a winning note by beating the Toronto Maple Leafs 7-1. Meanwhile, Semin injured his ankle once again, during the October 27 loss against the St Louis Blues and would not return until November 19. The team was 5-6 at the end of October, a month marked by either Semin or Clark being injured for a significant stretch of time. The team had other injuries, including forward, Boyd Gordon with back spasms, Tom Poti with a groin strain, and Steve Eminger.
November Before Thanksgiving
With Alexander Semin and Chris Clark, the team’s two leading scorers from 2006-07 that were not named Ovechkin, out since late October, the Capitals started November with a 4-game losing streak, although the last loss was an Overtime loss to the Atlanta Thrashers on Nov 6, giving them one standings point. They now were 5-9-1. They won their next game against the Ottawa Senators on November 8 by a 4-1 score, but the losing resumed after that, with five losses in a row, all in regulation. They continued to lose, even with Clark and Semin returning to the lineup. During this losing streak, Head Coach Glen Hanlon kept shuffling the lineup, juggling the forwards onto different lines on different days. The streak climaxed with a 5-1 loss to the Atlanta Thrashers at home on Nov 21, dropping the team’s record to 6-14-1, The worst in the NHL. During that game, fans booed the team and even chanted, “Fire Hanlon.” In addition to the losses and the injuries, November was also notable for the trade of center, Brian Sutherby, to the Anaheim Ducks on November 19.
Hanlon Fired and Boudreau Hired
General Manager George McPhee fired Hanlon after the game. The next morning at 7:00 a.m., which happened to be Thanksgiving Day, he contacted Bruce Boudreau, the Head Coach of the Caps’ Hershey Bears affiliate and appointed him as the Interim Head Coach for the Caps. Thus, Boudreau jumped in his car and drove from his home in Hershey, PA, in time to conduct the Caps’ practice.
“It’s a new voice,” said Boudreau, a 52-year-old Toronto native. “I’m fairly demanding. I may smile and joke with them, but if they don’t do what’s needed and what’s necessary, they are going to have to pay the price. From the top player to the bottom player, you’ve got to be accountable.”
Further Reading on Hanlon Firing and Boudreau Hiring
NoVa Caps Writeup of Boudreau Hire — 10 Years Later
Contemporaneous Washington Post Story on Coaching Change
The coaching change resulted in immediate success – at least in Boudreau’s first NHL game as head coach. The Caps traveled to Philadelphia to play the Flyers and beat them 4-3 in Overtime, on a Nicklas Backstrom goal. Boudreau made one change to the power play alignment, by including Mike Green, who scored a power play goal in the game.
Remainder of November and December
The Caps won their next game, which took place the very next day back in Washington, D.C. This time, the Carolina Hurricanes came into town and the Caps beat then 5-2. But they lost the last three games in November, including a shootout loss. Their record was now 8-16-2 after nearly one-third of the season.
For December, the Caps seemed to be on a treadmill. They would win a game and follow-up the next game with a loss. They had one three-game winning streak during the month, but also had a three game losing streak. Their record for December was 7-3-3, which was a winning record, and much better than they had done during either October or November, especially the latter. They lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins on December 27 in Overtime by a 3-4 score, in a game where Ovechkin was cut by a skate and needed over 20 stitches. Boudreau was not happy with the team after that game as they had played the third period with no energy. They did much better against the Ottawa Senators on December 29 in Ottawa, beating them 8-6. This was an accomplishment since the Senators had won nine of their previous 11 games and were in first place in the Eastern Conference. Ovechkin scored four goals that game, in a game where he was considered iffy for being able to play given the fact he needed so many stitches just two days earlier. This particular win got the Caps out of last place in their division and their conference, pulling ahead of Tampa Bay. The Caps’ overall record was now 15-19-5.
On the injury front, center Boyd Gordon broke his hand in early December, Clark was out with a groin injury, and Nylander missed games in early December with a shoulder injury. The game of December 13 against the Buffalo Sabres was notable in that Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Kozlov were placed on a line together for the first time.
The Caps started off the new year with another win against the Ottawa Senators on New Year’s Day at home. The final score was 6-3. January proved to be a better month for the Caps than December had been. They won 9 games and lost 4 improving their record to 24-23-5. They had pulled ahead of both the Florida Panthers and the Atlanta Thrashers in the Southeast Division standings and trailed the division leaders, the Carolina Hurricanes, by just three points. Granted, the Southeast Division was a relatively weak division, and the only way they would make the playoffs was to finish first in the division. The Caps had also done better in games requiring Overtime than they had in December. This month they won two overtime games and two shootouts. In December, they had won one Overtime game and lost three, including one shootout. Their most memorable games in January included beating the Pittsburgh Penguins 6-5 on January 21 in a shootout and beating the Montreal Canadiens at home in their last game of the month by a score of 5-4 in Overtime, in a game where Ovechkin scored four goals.
One other important event in January was the fact that Ovechkin signed a 13-year contract extension for a total of $124 million. His entry-level contract was expiring at the end of the year and there was speculation he might receive an offer sheet from a richer team then.
However, there were numerous sour notes on the health front, many of which had implications for the future. Semin missed a few games early in the month due to a bruised tailbone. Defenseman Tom Poti missed most of the games the first half of the month, getting injured in the game on January 3 and returning on January 13th. Defenseman Brian Pothier was checked by Milan Lucic in the game on January 3 and ended up getting a concussion. He did not return for more than a year. January 13, while a Sunday rather than a Friday, proved to be a particularly unlucky day for the team on the injury front. Clark returned to the lineup for a game against the Philadelphia Flyers after being absent for more than a month but tweaked his groin early in third period and left the game. This proved to be his last game of the year. January 13 was also the last game of the season when Nylander played. Just two days later, it was announced that Nylander would have surgery for a torn rotator cuff and would need three to six months to recover. He had been dealing with the injury since about December. Defenseman Shaone Morrisonn had also missed a few games during January.
The Caps started February by losing 2-0 to the Atlanta Thrashers on February 2. After that, they won two in a row, including an Overtime win against Columbus. They closed the month with two consecutive wins – against the Minnesota Wild and the New Jersey Devils. Still, this was not a month the Caps would find a groove as they went 6-4-3 for the month and now had an overall record of 30-27-8. They had one stretch just before the trade deadline where they had lost 6 games out of 8, including two shootout losses and another overtime loss. At the end of the month, they were now three points behind the Carolina Hurricanes in the Southeast Division Standings, but the Caps had two games “in hand” as the Canes had played two more games than the Caps.
The Caps were very active in the trade market on February 26. With veteran goalie, Olie Kolzig not as good as he had been in recent years, General Manager, George McPhee felt it was time to upgrade at the goalie position. Hence, they acquired Christobal Huet from the Montreal Canadiens for a second-round pick. The Caps also acquired Sergei Fedorov from the Columbus Blue Jackets for a prospect named Ted Ruth. With Nylander out for the year, the Caps felt they needed to upgrade at center. Fedorov was best known for his play with the Detroit Red Wings in the past, but was now 38 years old. The Caps were still hoping he had something left in the tank. The Caps final deadline deal was trading Matt Pettinger to the Vancouver Canucks for Matt Cooke, best known as an agitator.
The Caps used their new goalie, Huet, in their last game of February against the New Jersey Devils, which they won 4-0. Fedorov was placed on the second line, to be flanked by Semin and Laich. The reaction to acquiring Fedorov was positive as Ovechkin recalled admiring him while growing up and Laich remembered having a poster of him as a child.
March and Early April
The question for March was … would the Caps make a late playoff run in a year where they were not sellers at the trading deadline? They began the month by losing 3-2 to Toronto at home. But followed that up by beating the Boston Bruins 10-2 at home on March 3. They split their next two games on the road and then returned home for a four game homestand. They opened with a 4-2 loss to the Penguins on March 9. After that, they won the remaining three games on the homestand and traveled to Nashville where they won once more. That game started a six-game road trip where it would be more difficult to win than at home. They traveled to Chicago to play the Blackhawks on a back to back but had no energy and fell 5-0. The remaining road games were to fellow division teams, i.e. Atlanta, Carolina, Tampa Bay, and Florida.
In the game against the Atlanta Thrashers on March 21, the Caps started off badly by going down 3-1 after two periods, but roared back with four goals in the third period for the win. Their next game was against Carolina on March 25. It was especially important that they beat Carolina to have any chance of winning the Division. They ended up winning in a shootout, 3-2, in a game that was notable for Alex Ovechkin breaking Dennis Maruk’s franchise record for goal scoring. Next was Tampa Bay on March 27, which the Capitals won 4-3 in Overtime in a seesaw affair. They closed the road trip against Florida on March 29 by winning 3-0. Thus, after losing badly to Chicago, they swept through the South and won the remaining games of the trip.
At the end of that road trip, which was also their last game in March, they now had a 39-31-8 record and 88 standings points, helped by two four-game winning streaks, including one that was still in progress. The Caps now sat two standings points behind the Carolina Hurricanes and second in the division. In the battle for potential playoff berths, they were also three points behind Philadelphia and Boston and four points behind Ottawa who had fallen off greatly after their hot start.
With the calendar turning to April, there were only three games left and all three were at home against Southeast Division opponents. With a potential playoff berth at stake, Caps fans, generally clad in red, packed Verizon Center and the games were sold out. On April 1st, they beat Carolina 4-1 and now tied them in standings points, as they had beaten the Canes in regulation. After that, Tampa Bay came into town just two days later and the Caps beat them by an identical 4-1 score. That game against Tampa Bay featured Ovechkin scoring two goals to improve his total to 65. They closed the regular season by beating the Florida Panthers 3-1.
The Caps edged the Hurricanes for the Southeast Division title by two points. The Caps had gone 37-17-7 after Boudreau had taken over the Caps on Thanksgiving Day to finish up with a 43-31-8 record and 94 points. It was a 24-point improvement from the previous season.
By virtue of finishing first in the Southeast Division, but having a worse record than the Montreal Canadiens who won the Northeast Division and the Pittsburgh Penguins who won the Atlantic Division, the Caps were seeded third in the NHL Eastern Conference Playoffs. They would play the Philadelphia Flyers who were the sixth seed. The Flyers had finished with one more standings point than the Caps, with 95 points, with a 42-29-11 record, but they finished in fourth place in the Atlantic which had more strong teams.
The Caps great run to the playoffs had invoked memories of teams from previous generations who had gotten off to a poor start, stormed back to finish in first place and went on to win the championship. This included the “Miracle Braves” of 1914, who sat in last place on July 4, but went on to win the World Series that year, or the St. Louis Cardinals of 1964, who were expected to contend but were still playing .500 in late July, but after that, stormed back to win the National League pennant and then the World Series.
Capping off the 2007-08 season with a Stanley Cup win would have been a storybook ending. However, that did not happen. The Caps started their series against the Philadelphia Flyers at home by winning 5-4 on April 11. But they followed that up by losing the next three games by scores of 2-0, 6-3, and 4-3, the last in double Overtime. So now they had their backs to the wall. They won Game 5 at home, 3-2, on April 19 and then traveled to Philadelphia to win Game 6 4-2. This set up Game 7 at home. The score was tied at 2-2 when it went into Overtime. The Flyers scored the game winner on a power play goal while Tom Poti was in the penalty box. It was a disappointing end to a potential story book season.
Fans still felt optimistic about the team’s future even after the series loss. The core players, Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green, were still all under the age of 25 so there be plenty of chances for them to contend again. The vast majority of the key players would be back for the following season, including trade deadline acquisition, Sergei Fedorov. Michael Nylander and Chris Clark were expected to return from their season ending injuries. There were many other promising players in the Caps’ system, either on the team or with their Hershey Bears farm team. In other words, the future looked bright, even despite concern about the team’s goaltending since trade acquisition, Christobal Huet, decided not to return to the team.
Further Reading on Season
Bruce Boudreau’s Best Moments in 2007-08 Season
By Diane Doyle