The 2008-09 season began with much hope for the Washington Capitals, despite the fact, they were eliminated in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs the season before. There were many reasons for that:
- Young Guns: The team had four young, marketable stars who were still under the age of 25 in Alex Ovechkin (age 23), Alexander Semin (age 24), Nicklas Backstrom (not quite 21), and Mike Green (not quite 23) who were expected to be good for many years to come
- Other Young Players: Besides the so called “Young Guns”, they had several other young players in their lineup, including Brooks Laich (25), Tomas Fleischmann (25), Boyd Gordon (not quite 25), Eric Fehr (23), Shaone Morrisonn (26), Milan Jurcina (25), and Jeff Schultz (22). This did not include prospects playing for their AHL affiliate, the Hershey Bears, or recent draft picks.
- Return of Injured Players: During the 2007-08 season, the team had experienced adversity on the injury front, which most notably included losing two important players for the remainder of the season in January. These players were Chris Clark, their Captain, and Michael Nylander, a center who had signed with the team as a free agent before the 2007-08 season. Clark had scored over 20 goals in 2005-06 and over 30 goals during 2006-07. Prior to getting injured about midway through the season, Nylander was a center in the Top 6, and he had averaged about 25 goals and 80 points per year with his prior team, the New York Rangers. It was anticipated that the return of those two veterans would be helpful to the team’s offense.
- Bruce Boudreau: Head Coach Bruce Boudreau would be coaching the full season. When he had taken over the team on Thanksgiving Day after Glen Hanlon had been fired, the team was in last place. He led them to a winning record and a Southeast Division title and won the Jack Adams Trophy for Coach of the Year.
The aforementioned players would all be returning to the team, along with 39-year-old Sergei Fedorov, who had been acquired at the trade deadline of 2007-08 as a rental, but was brought back for the 2008-09 season by “popular” demand. (Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin played a great part in that “popular” demand.) Right wing Viktor Kozlov would also be back and would, once again, complement Ovechkin and Backstrom on the top line.
On the downside, goaltending was a potential problem spot. Christobal Huet, acquired at the 2007-08 trade deadline, decided not to return to the Caps, instead signing a contract with the Chicago Blackhawks. The Caps ended up signing Jose Theodore to a two-year contract since the Caps did not have a “ready” replacement available in their farm system. Theodore had won a Vezina Trophy during the 2001-02 season but had struggled most years after that. Prospect Semyon Varlamov, who had played most recently the KHL, had been sent to the Hershey farm team to learn how to play on the smaller sized rink. They had another goalie prospect, Michal Neuvirth, who had no AHL experience.
They began the season by losing their first game to the Atlanta Thrashers by a score of 7-4, but won their next three contests, winning against the Chicago Blackhawks, the Vancouver Canucks, and the Pittsburgh Penguins in Pittsburgh. The Caps had come from behind to beat the Penguins with three goals in the final period, by Alexander Semin, Michael Nylander, and Boyd Gordon. They had initially fallen behind on three power play goals by Pittsburgh and were down 3-0 less than two minutes into the second period, but Tomas Fleischmann had broken the shutout.
After the win against the Penguins, they lost a shootout to New Jersey and followed that up with two losses on the road to Calgary and Phoenix. They won an Overtime game in Dallas by a score of 6-5 and then beat Nashville at home in a shootout by a 4-3 score. In that game, Semin registered a goal and an assist during regulation and got a goal in the shootout, which helped them to victory. Their final record for the month was 5-3-1 which was slightly above mediocrity, and in second place in the Southeast Division just one point behind the Carolina Hurricanes.
The running stories on the team for the month of October were: 1) Alex Ovechkin was off to the slowest start of his career, with only 2 goals and 3 assists in 8 games with both his goals occurring in the second game of the season. He ended up leaving the team on October 27 to go back home to spend time with his ailing grandfather who died less than a month later; 2) Alexander Semin was off to a great start and had 8 goals and 8 assists in the first 9 games and ended up winning “NHL Player of the Month” for October; 3) Injuries to players. Nicklas Backstrom had sprained his ankle during an informal scrimmage on September 11 and missed much of training camp. While he did not miss any games in October, he needed a few games to get over the mental hurdle of fearing reinjury. At the end of October, he had no goals and 4 assists, his last 3 assists coming in the last three games of the month. Other notable injuries included: Viktor Kozlov missed four games with a knee sprain that month and Tom Poti missed five games with a groin strain.
Contemporaneous Stories from Washington Post
Ovechkin going home to Russia to Visit Ailing Grandfather
Semin Helps Win Game Against Nashville
First Part of November
November started off with a thud. The Caps traveled to Buffalo for a game on November 1 and lost 5-0. Head Coach Bruce Boudreau was steamed about the players’ efforts and cancelled their off day the following day and had them do the proverbial “bag skate” practice. The Caps had given up a goal on the VERY first shot in that game. Boudreau also pointed out that giving up first period goals was a problem for the team in that they had given up 15 goals in the 10 games thus far. Shaone Morrisonn ended up getting injured in that game as well.
They followed up that bad game with another loss, this time an Overtime loss to the Ottawa Senators in Ottawa, just three days later. But at least Ovechkin was back with the Caps after his trip to Russia.
Their next opponent was the Carolina Hurricanes on November 6 at home. Going into the game, the Canes were 7-3-2 and in first place in the Southeast Division. The Caps were now 5-4-2, after starting off November with two losses. It was a crisis game in that they were playing their main divisional rival at the time. It was also noteworthy for the Caps starting an All Russian forward line of Ovechkin, Fedorov, and Semin. The game did not start off well for the Caps as Carolina scored first. The Caps tied in the second period only for Carolina to pull ahead again. With less than three minutes to go, Semin scored the game tying goal. Semin then scored again with just 11 seconds to go, getting the game winner. There was one down note for that game in that Sergei Fedorov injured his ankle, but that game was also noteworthy for the fact that Backstrom returned to the top line when Fedorov left the game. Shaone Morrisonn was injured during that game, too.
This particular win was the first win of five in a row, which included wins at home against the New York Rangers and Tampa Lightning, on the road against Carolina, and the New Jersey Devils at home on November 14, and helped them pass Carolina for first place in the Southeast Division. The streak ended with a 6-5 shootout loss against the Devils in New Jersey on November 15 that was notable for Ovechkin getting a game tying goal with a second to go before the end of the period.
November West Coast Road Trip
Following that game was a road trip to the West Coast with a stop in Minnesota, which proved to be the West Coast Road Trip from Hell. They won the first game of that trip 6-4 on November 19 against the Anaheim Ducks, but the victory proved to be costly as Mike Green left the game with a shoulder injury following a hit by Ducks’ defenseman Chris Pronger. They lost 5-2 to the Los Angeles Kings on November 20 and lost 7-2 to the San Jose Sharks, two teams that they historically did not perform well against. Shaone Morrisonn finally returned from his injuries, at least. Fedorov returned in the Sharks game only to reinjure his ankle. After that game, the Caps traveled to Minnesota to play the Wild on November 24. It was another loss. The Caps fell behind and were behind 4-0 about a third of the way through third period. While the Caps scored 3 late goals, they still fell 4-3. The game was notable for even more injuries. Jeff Schultz, John Erskine, and Boyd Gordon all left the game, due to injuries. It turned out Schultz had broken his finger and needed surgery. So, counting the westward swing to the West Coast and to Minnesota, the Caps went 1-3, lost Mike Green, Jeff Schultz, John Erskine, and Boyd Gordon to injury, saw Sergei Fedorov came back from his injury only to be out again, and still had Alexander Semin out.
After the Caps returned home to play against the Atlanta Thrashers on the day before Thanksgiving, they recalled four players from their Hershey Bears’ affiliate: defensive prospect Karl Alzner, defense prospect Sami Lepisto, forward Chris Bourque, and forward Graham Mink. The Caps had called up Tyler Sloan earlier in the month. It was also announced that Jeff Schultz, with his broken finger, and Chris Clark, who now turned out to have a stress fracture in his forearm would be placed on Long Term Injury Reserve. Up to that point, Clark had been having a very frustrating season to follow up on his injury plagued one from the year before.
The Caps were obviously happy to be back home as they beat the Thrashers 5-3, with Ovechkin getting a hat trick and an assist, thus taking over the league lead in goals from his injured teammate, Alexander Semin. There was one more injury in that game, this time to defenseman Tom Poti, who injured his groin. The Caps called-up still another player from Hershey, this time defenseman Bryan Helmer, who was Hershey’s team Captain at the time. The injury plagued Caps were able to beat Montreal 3-0, who prior to the game, sat in second place in the Northeast Division and had one point more than the Caps. But with the win, the Caps had one more point than Montreal. They closed the month of November by losing 3-0 to the Columbus Blue Jackets on the road and rookie defenseman, Karl Alzner, got injured and left the game early. At the end of November, the Caps were 13-8-3 and in first place in the Southeast Division, and had an extremely long injury list. Alex Ovechkin had 25 points in November and earned NHL Player of the Month.
The month of December started off with a 5-3 loss to the Florida Panthers at home. Bruce Boudreau was extremely upset with the team afterwards. After that, they won their next two games, beating the New York Islanders at home on December 4 and the Toronto Maple Leafs on the road on December 6. They traveled to Carolina after that for a back to back and lost.
They played the Eastern Conference leading Boston Bruins on December 10 and won 3-1. That game was notable for Alex Semin and Tom Poti returning from their injuries. While the lineup still featured numerous players (five players in all) from Hershey, the returning players seemed to give the team a mental lift in that game. Semin contributed an assist on Alex Ovechkin’s empty net goal near the end of the game.
After that game, the Caps won four games in a row. Their next win was a 5-1 win against Ottawa on December 12, a game notable for Semin and Ovechkin both scoring goals and doing a celebration high-five that resembled a game of patty cake. It was also notable for the recall of goalie, Semyon Varlamov, due to an injury to Jose Theodore. However, the Hershey Bears were on a road trip in Texas and, due to logistics and the availability of airline flights, Varlamov would not make it to Washington, DC for the beginning of the game, so the Caps were forced to have Brett Leonhardt, who worked for the team in media, dress for the game as backup goalie. The next game was a 2-1 victory against Montreal which featured the NHL debut of Varlamov in goal and the return of Mike Green to the lineup. They next beat the New York Islanders 5-4 in Overtime and followed that by beating the St Louis Blues at home, in a game notable for Varlamov’s debut at home and Alexander Semin getting injured again. The streak ended the next game where the Caps lost to the Philadelphia Flyers 7-1 on December 20. In addition to losing the game, the Caps also lost both Tom Poti and Mike Green to injury – again.
They next traveled to New York to play the Rangers in their last game before the mandated Christmas break, December 23. This game would forever be known as the “Miracle on 32rd Street” game to Caps fans. The new injuries to Poti and Green added to the Caps long injury list which, in addition to those guys, also consisted of Alexander Semin, Sergei Fedorov, Jeff Schultz, Chris Clark, John Erskine, and Donald Brashear. As a result, their top defensive pairing for that game was Karl Alzner, a rookie called up from Hershey at the end of November, and Milan Jurcina, who normally played on the third pairing. The rest of their defensive corps consisted of Shaone Morrisonn, who was usually on the top pairing and three other callups from Hershey, Tyler Sloan, Bryan Helmer, and Sean Collins. The forwards included Andrew Gordon, who was making his NHL debut and Alexandre Giroux who had been earlier called up from Hershey.
The Caps fell behind 3-0 early and starting goalie, Jose Theodore, was pulled in favor of Brent Johnson. However, Johnson was ill and was too ill to return for second period, so Theodore returned to the game. He gave up another goal as the Caps went down 4-0. It looked like the Caps were headed to their second consecutive loss. But then the tide turned when Alex Ovechkin scored a goal during second period to break the shutout. The Caps ended up scoring three goals, including another goal by Ovechkin, during third period to tie the score. The game went into Overtime. Shaone Morrisonn, who celebrated his 26th birthday that day, scored the game winning goal, with an assist by Michael Nylander as the Caps won 5-4, completing the comeback. Given that the game took place so close to Christmas and geographically occurred close to that iconic Macy’s department store, the game became known as the “Miracle of 33rd Street” game.
The Caps resumed playing on December 26 and closed out the year with three wins, with wins against the Buffalo Sabres at home, the Toronto Maple Leafs at home, and the Buffalo Sabres on the road. Their game against the Toronto Maple Leafs on December 28 was notable for the retirement of the number for long time former Capital, Mike Gartner. The Caps had a 24-11-3 record to close out the month of December.
The Caps started off the new year where they left off at the end of the old one – by winning. They beat Tampa Bay 7-4 on January 1. They followed that with two more wins, with a 2-1 win at home against the New York Rangers and a 2-1 shootout win against the Philadelphia Flyers. The win against the Rangers was notable for Alexander Semin returning to the game and responding to a hit by getting into a third period fight against Marc Staal. It was obvious from that fight that neither player was normally a fighter.
But all good things must come to an end, including winning streaks. The Caps’ 7-game winning streak, that had spanned both December and January, ended against the Columbus Blue Jackets on January 9. They traveled to Montreal and lost 5-4 on January 10 with Montreal scoring the game winning goal with just over 20 seconds to go in the game. They lost a third game in a row, this time to Edmonton at home on January 13 but rebounded the following day to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 6-3. This particular win was an even back and forth affair where a team would get the lead, but the other team would tie it up. But the Caps scored three unanswered goals during third period to win. The game featured two goals from Ovechkin and one from Semin. They won their next two games, one against Boston at home and the other against the Islanders on the road in Overtime. But the next day, January 20, they lost to the Ottawa Senators in the last game before the All Star Break that year. Once the All-Star Break was over, they lost to Boston in Overtime on January 27 but beat the defending NHL champion Detroit Red Wings on January 31 in a nationally televised matinee game. Defenseman Mike Green, had scored a goal in each of those two games, starting a goal scoring streak. At the end of January, the Caps were 31-15-4.
The Caps began February by playing the second game of a home back to back, beating the Ottawa Senators 7-4. In that game, Mike Green scored the first goal for the Caps on a power play goal, marking the third game in a row where he had scored. Ovechkin had a hat trick that day, with three goals, and Alex Semin and Nicklas Backstrom scored, too. There was one sour note after the game when it was announced that Team Captain, Chris Clark, required wrist surgery and would miss the remainder of the regular season.
The Caps increased their winning streak to three games on February 3 by beating the New Jersey Devils 5-2. Mike Green scored in that game, as well. The winning streak ended against the Los Angeles Kings on February 5 as they lost 5-4. The game was notable for Alex Ovechkin scoring his 300th goal and Mike Green increasing his streak of consecutive games where he scored a goal to 5.
Green’s goal scoring streak lasted for three more games, including a win against the Florida Panthers at home, a shootout loss against the New York Rangers in New York, and a road win against Tampa Bay on Valentine’s Day. His streak of scoring in 8 consecutive games set a record for defensemen. Green’s father, David, was in the audience for the game against Tampa Bay as the Caps were doing the Annual Fathers’ trip at that time. Most of the fathers of the Capitals traveled on the road trip to Florida with their sons, so they could watch their sons play hockey but do other fun activities, too. In that record setting game, the Caps won 5-1. Ovechkin and Semin also scored that day, too, with Semin having a goal and two assists. Semin had missed the previous game against the Rangers with an injury but was now back.
The winning continued for the Caps on February 15 as the Caps beat the Panthers 4-2, closing out a great Fathers’ Trip but it was the end of Mike Green’s scoring streak. They won their next game at home on February in a shootout against Montreal in a game most noted for an amazing Alex Ovechkin goal. For the remainder of February, they won three more games and lost two more. Viktor Kozlov finally returned to the lineup after being out for several games. They closed out the month of February by beating the Bruins 4-3 in Overtime in a matinee game. Alex Semin had shot the puck out of the zone and it beat Boston goaltender, Tim Thomas, for the game winner. Semin was about to go off the ice for a shift change.
Their record at the end of February was 40-18-5 which lead the Southeast Division and was second in the Eastern Conference, second only to the Boston Bruins. The month of February was also notable for goalie Michal Neuvirth being called up from Hershey, making his debut, and playing in several games.
March and Early April
Usually, the month of August is considered the “dog days” of summer. But for hockey teams, the dog days seem to occur in March. For the Caps in the 2008-09, that seemed to be the case. March of 2009 was a contrast to March of the previous season, where they had to fight for their playoff life. This year (2009), the Caps had already built a sizable lead in their division and the question was not if they would make the playoffs but when. The question was what their seeding position would be and, if they won their division, which was likely, the question is whether they would beat out the leaders of the Atlantic Division and of the Northeast Division for an even better seeding position.
March did not start well at all for the Caps as they lost four games in a row at home, the first three in regulation to the Florida Panthers, the Carolina Hurricanes, and the Toronto Maple Leafs and the fourth in a shootout to the Pittsburgh Penguins. They finally broken their losing streak when they traveled to Nashville on March 10 and beat the Predators 2-1 when Sergei Fedorov scored in Overtime and followed that up by beating Philadelphia. There were more casualties during that period when Donald Brashear injured his knee in Nashville and Sergei Fedorov became ill before the Flyers game and could not play. They returned on March 14 and beat Carolina in a shootout. After that was a road trip through the South, which included stops in Atlanta, Florida, Tampa Bay, and Carolina. They were thrashed by the Thrashers, beat the Panthers and Lightning, but lost to Carolina. The Caps had beaten the Panthers on March 17, but lost center, Boyd Gordon, with a broken finger. The win against the Lightning on March 19 was notable for Alex Ovechkin scoring his 50th goal of the year and doing the infamous “hot stick” celebration which was roundly criticized by Don Cherry. It was also the game in which defenseman Brian Pothier returned to the ice after missing over a year due to concussion symptoms. In addition, forward Quintin Laing had been called up from Hershey to play in that game, after the injuries to Gordon and Brashear. After that game, he complained of abdominal pain and turned out to have torn his spleen and needed surgery. Defenseman, Mike Green, got injured in the Tampa Bay game, as well, and did not play against Carolina.
Contributing to the “dog days” feeling, the latter part of the month included more even more injuries and illness, in addition to those of Gordon and Laing. Alex Semin and Matt Bradley both got sick after the southern road trip. They both felt well enough to play in the game against the Maple Leafs in Toronto on March 24 which they lost in a 3-2 shootout. But then Semin relapsed and missed the next several practices and did not play in the next game against Tampa Bay at home three days later (March 27). Pothier scored his first goal of the year in that game. This Tampa Bay game was the last game in March. They would not play again until April 1. For the month, amidst all the injuries and illness., the Caps were 6-5-2 for the month of March, which was mediocre. The Caps’ overall record at the end of March was 46-23-7. The Caps ended up clinching a playoff spot on March 25 when they were idle.
The Caps started April by winning 5-3 against the New York Islanders at home. But they lost to the Sabres at home on April 3, losing in a shootout. They rebounded to win both games in a home and home against the Atlanta Thrashers, of which the first was at home on Fan Appreciation Day and the second one on the road. They traveled to Florida and beat Tampa Bay but then lost to the Florida Panthers. Their record for April was 4-1-1. Their final record ended up 50-24-8 for 108 points. They finished first in their division and second in the Eastern Conference, only to Boston. This was 14 more points than they had in 2007-08.
The Caps were the second seed and played the seventh seeded New York Rangers in Round 1. During the regular season, the Caps had won three close games against the Rangers and lost one in a shootout. However, the Rangers had fired their Head Coach, Tom Renney, on February 23 and replaced him with John Tortorella and seemed like a different team. The Rangers had started off very well that year, having a 22-11-2 record on December 17. But then they struggled and were 31-23-7 after the game on February 22, after which they made the coaching switch. Their final record was 43-30-9.
The Caps started Jose Theodore in goal, who had spent the year being inconsistent. While the Rangers started Henrik Lundqvist, their All-Star goalie. The Caps had the home field advantage but did not take advantage of it, losing the first game 4-3 and the second game 1-0. Theodore’s shaky performance in Game 1 prompted Boudreau to use Varlamov in Game 2.
Despite the loss, Varlamov continued in goal. The Caps rebounded in the first game in New York by a 4-0 score. They lost the next game 2-1 and found themselves in a 3-1 deficit. They returned home and won 4-1. After that, they won 5-3 in New York and had forced Game 7. They returned home and beat the Rangers 2-1, thanks to a third period goal by Sergei Fedorov. Hence, they advanced to Round 2 for a date with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Varlamov had played goal in all of those six games.
They started off well in the Pittsburgh series by winning the first two games at home, with the second game featuring dueling hat tricks by Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby. They traveled to Pittsburgh and lost Game 3 in Overtime in a game where Pittsburgh dominated in shots and, followed it up by losing Game 4 to Pittsburgh, as well. They returned home and lost another Overtime Game and were down 3-2 in the series. They went to Pittsburgh and won in Overtime this time. But returned home and were blown out 6-2 and Pittsburgh advanced and ended up winning the Stanley Cup.
There were many “what ifs” from that series. If they had won Game 3 of that series in Overtime, they would have had a commanding 3-1 game edge. While the Caps had not historically done well with that edge, their odds would have been better, especially with two games left at home. In Game 7, if Ovechkin had not missed out on a goal, would the rest of the game have gone different.
It turned out that many of the Caps players had played injured in the Pittsburgh series. This included: Mike Green with a shoulder injury, Tom Poti and John Erskine with broken feet, Shaone Morrisonn with groin and ankle injuries, Semin with an injured thumb that needed to be numbed every game so that he could play, and Ovechkin with a groin pull. Ovechkin and Green did not need any surgery for their ailments. Eric Fehr was out due to shoulder issues and needed surgery. While it’s a cliché that all players play hurt during the playoffs, I can’t help but wonder if many of the Caps’ defensive woes were caused by four of their defensemen being injured in the playoffs, including their top three defensemen Green, Poti, and Morrisonn. I also can’t help but wonder if Semin’s thumb injury had hurt his ability to grip a stick, greatly lessening his effectiveness.
The team had improved from the previous year, for both the regular season, and advanced one round further in the playoffs. This was despite all the adversity on the injury front they had experienced, with multiple players missing long stretches of the season. The “Young Guns”, Ovechkin, Semin, Backstrom, and Green were still 25 years old or younger. The team ultimately let Fedorov and Kozlov leave the team in free agency and the question was … who would replace them and who would replace Fedorov as 2C, given that Nylander no longer seemed to fit in the team’s plans.
NoVa Caps: Best Moments of Bruce Boudreau’s Career — Part 2
By Diane Doyle