The 2009-10 season began with much hope for the Washington Capitals, despite the fact they were eliminated by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs the prior season. There were many reasons for that.
- Young Guns: The team had four young, marketable stars who were still age 25 or younger in Alex Ovechkin (age 24), Alexander Semin (age 25), Nicklas Backstrom (not quite 25), and Mike Green (not quite 25) 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 (26), Tomas Fleischmann (26), Boyd Gordon (not quite 26), Eric Fehr (26), Shaone Morrisonn (27), Milan Jurcina (27), and Jeff Schultz (23). This did not include prospects playing for their AHL affiliate, the Hershey Bears, or recent draft picks.
- Promising Young Goalies: While goalie Jose Theodore had an uneven 2008-09 season and was replaced during the playoffs with rookie Semyon Varlamov, Varlamov, who was just 21 years of age, performed well enough in the playoffs that he could be considered a goalie of the future. The Caps had another goalie prospect, Michal Neuvirth, also 21 years old, who had played a few games for the Capitals, but led their farm team, the Hershey Bears, to a Calder Cup Championship.
- Bruce Boudreau: Head Coach Bruce Boudreau was back as Head Coach. Ever since taking over the Capitals on Thanksgiving Day in 2008, the Caps had performed well. The team was in last place when Glen Hanlon had been fired. But Boudreau rallied the Capitals to a winning record and a Southeast Division title. He also won the Jack Adams Trophy for Coach of the Year. He proved that the latter part of the 2008-09 season was no fluke by leading the Caps to another Southeast Division title and the second best record in the Eastern Conference.
State of the Team in Training Camp
Veteran center Sergei Fedorov, and veteran right winger Viktor Kozlov became free agents and signed contracts with the KHL during the offseason, so they would not be returning to the Caps. As a result, the Caps signed another veteran right winger, Mike Knuble, to replace Kozlov. In spite of his relatively advanced age of 37, Knuble was a perennial 25-30 goals per year scorer and was considered to be a great fit for the first line. The Caps signed Brendan Morrison, who had been plagued with injuries, to a one-year contract to fill the role of second line center.
In goal, Jose Theodore was in the second year of his two-year contract and was expected to be the Caps #1 goalie, in spite of being replaced by Semyon Varlamov during the playoffs. The previous year’s backup, Brent Johnson, had signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins. The expectation was that either Varlamov or Neuvirth would back up Theodore, with the other young goaltender returning to the Hershey Bears.
The defense was perceived to be a relative weakness for the team, as none of their defensemen were perceived to be “good” at being shutdown defenseman.
At the start of training camp, there was news of two significant injured players. Forward Tomas Fleischmann had developed blood clots on his flight home to the Czech Republic after the playoffs and was now taking blood thinners. He would not be able to take part in contact drills and would miss the first month of the season.
Forward Eric Fehr was injured during the playoffs and needed surgery on both his shoulders and would also not be able to take part in contact drills during training camp, and would also miss the start of the season.
The absence of both was a “hit” to the Caps Top 9 forward depth as both Fleischmann and Fehr would typically be deployed among the Top 9, with the former usually on either the second or third line and the latter anywhere in the lineup but most typically the third line.
Training camp ended with Neuvirth sustaining a minor injury. Hence, he was returned to Hershey and Semyon Varlamov would be the backup to Jose Theodore. There was also the Chris Bourque waiver drama. Initially, Chris Bourque was considered to have made the Caps roster. However, he was waived and then claimed by the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Capitals began the season by beating the Boston Bruins 4-1 in Boston Garden on October 1. Jose Theodore got the start in goal. Coach Boudreau went with a slightly different lineup for the Top 6 forwards than expected, as Alexander Semin would be on the first line with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, while Knuble would be on the second line with Brooks Laich and Brendan Morrison. Knuble and Morrison were both alumni of the same college, the University of Michigan. The win was a satisfying win for the Caps, as Boston had finished first in the Eastern Conference during the 2008-09 regular season and were expected to contend again in 2009-10.
Their next game was at home on October 3 against the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Caps started Varlamov in goal and won 6-4. At one point, they led the game 6-1 but gave up three goals to win 6-4.
Then came a rough stretch for the team, as they lost four games in a row. They lost 6-5 in overtime to the Philadelphia Flyers on October 8. They followed that game by losing 4-3 to the New York Rangers, at home. Then, they lost to the Detroit Red Wings 3-2 in Detroit. The losing continued for one more game as they lost a 3-2 shootout decision to the New Jersey Devils on Oct 12.
In an odd occurrence, all the players scoring for the Caps in their first four games were forwards on the team’s top two lines. No third liner, fourth liner, or defenseman had scored during the first four games. Granted, their forward depth was decimated with Fehr and Fleischmann both being out to start the season. Matt Bradley broke that non Top 6 scoring drought with the goal in their loss to Detroit in the team’s fifth game but, unfortunately, did not break their four game losing streak. Coincidentally, Fehr returned to the lineup against Detroit.
They broke their losing streak in a home game on October 15 against none other than the San Jose Sharks, a team they had not beaten since October 1993 and who had won the Presidents’ Trophy the previous season. The win against the Sharks was the start of a six game winning streak for the Caps. They ended the month by losing 4-3 to the New York Islanders in Overtime. The team’s forward depth was greatly tested, not only with early season absences of Fehr and Fleischmann being out, but Boyd Gordon missed time due to back injuries, and Semin and Quintin Laing missed time due to illness.
The team was so desperate for forwards by the end of the month that Tyler Sloane, who was normally a depth defenseman, was deployed as a forward for several games. In better news, Fleischmann finally returned to the lineup on Oct 29. Their record for the month of October was 8-2-3 which had them atop the Southeast Division and gave them the second best record in the Eastern Conference, only behind Pittsburgh, the defending Stanley Cup winner, who was 11-3 and had the most points in the NHL.
The month of November started with a home game against the Columbus Blue Jackets on November 1 where they lost a see-saw affair in overtime. Alex Ovechkin had to leave the game due to injury and missed six games. They lost their next game to the New Jersey Devils on November 4, but won their next four contests.
That particular stretch, while Ovechkin was out with injury, was marked with more injuries. They played the Florida Panthers on Saturday November 6 and lost two defensemen, Mike Green and Jeff Schultz to injury. To add to their shortage of defensemen for that game, Shaone Morrisson took a major penalty and was ejected from the game. Tyler Sloan, who had been deployed as forward, moved back to his more natural position of playing defense.
On November 11, it was announced that Semin had injured his wrist and was wearing a wrist brace, but he still played in the game and contributed two goals in a game the Caps eventually won in a shootout. But after that, his performance kept deteriorating as he continued to play through the wrist injury. To add to their injury woes, Mike Knuble broke a finger crashing the net in the game against the Minnesota Wild on Friday November 13, a game the Caps won 3-1.
When Ovechkin finally returned to the lineup, Semin left the lineup and consulted a doctor about his injured wrist. Forward Boyd Gordon, who had not played since October 12 due to a back injury returned to the lineup on November 14, only to aggravate the injury and be sidelined again.
Quintin Laing, the unluckiest forward on the Capitals, this side of Pat Peeke, was injured again, getting a broken jaw on November 18 in their game against the New York Rangers, which they won 4-2.
The Caps then lost their next three games, which included a regulation loss to the Montreal Canadiens, a shootout loss against the Toronto Maple Leafs, and then an overtime loss to the Senators. They won their next three, but the last win appeared at the time to be a pyrrhic victory. They beat the Carolina Hurricanes in Carolina on November 30 by a 3-2 score. However, Ovechkin earned a kneeing penalty in a knee on knee hit on Tim Gleason that resulted in him injuring his knee. This was just two games after he had been ejected from a game with a major penalty. Hence, Ovechkin was suspended for the next two games.
The Caps ended their injury plagued month with a record of 8-3-3. It was a month bookended with injuries to Alex Ovechkin and featured injuries to other players, too. Tomas Fleischmann was a bright spot as he had five goals and five assists when elevated to the top line, although he had only earned one point that month after November 28.
The team had been streaky during November, with wins and losses both getting bunched together. The Caps now had a record of 16-5-6, and overwhelmingly led the Southeast Division, and were tied for first place in the Eastern Conference in points with 38 with the Pittsburgh Penguins. The question at the end of the month was how bad was the injury to Ovechkin’s knee.
Even with Ovechkin out for two games due to suspension, the Caps began December by winning their first three games, adding to the three game winning streak with which they had closed out November.
Their game against the Philadelphia Flyers on December 5 was particularly memorable. The Flyers, disappointed with how their season had gone thus far, had just fired their Head Coach, John Stevens, and replaced him with Peter Laviolette. Fleischmann scored nearly a minute into the contest but the Flyers tied it up just after the 12:00 mark. Two and a half minutes later, Daniel Carcillo sucker punched Matt Bradley, earning him a two-minute penalty for cross checking, a 5-minute major penalty for fighting, a two-minute penalty for instigating, a 10 minute misconduct, and a 10 minute game misconduct. This gave the Caps a 9 minute power play. The Caps responded by scoring two power play goals before the first period was up to take a 3-1 lead. The power play spilled into the second period where the Caps added another power play goal and now lead 4-1. They added three more goals during the second period. The final score ended up being 8-2. Nicklas Backstrom had 1 goal and 4 assists for a 5 point night. Mike Green had 2 goals and 2 assists. Fleischmann scored two goals. Eric Fehr and Alexander Semin each had 2 assists. It was a very productive night for the team.
Contemporaneous Recap from WaPo
Ovechkin returned from his suspension for the game on December 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning, which the Caps won 3-0 and featured two goals by Ovechkin. The winning streak ended on December 9 against the Buffalo Sabres, but they rebounded to beat the Carolina Hurricanes 4-3 in Overtime on December 11. They continued alternating wins and losses but strung two wins together before Christmas when they beat the Edmonton Oilers 4-2 on the road and the Buffalo Sabres on December 23 at home. They beat the New Jersey Devils at home on December 26 but then came a very jolting event.
The Post Christmas Trade and Aftermath
On December 28, the Caps held a morning skate prior to their game against Carolina. At that time, it appeared that defenseman Karl Alzner, who started the season in Hershey but had been up with the Caps since late November, would be a healthy scratch. The Caps had eight defensemen on the roster who were regarded as NHL-level defensemen, so there was a surplus there.
That afternoon, a trade was announced – the Caps’ captain, Chris Clark, along with defenseman Milan Jurcina, were traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets in return for left winger Jason Chimera. Chimera was notable as one of the Blue Jackets’ players involved in the Ovechkin injury of November 1. While the trade was a logical trade for many reasons, it was still shocking to both the players and their fans. The team’s shock was obvious in the game that night as they lost 6-3. The Captain-less team appeared rudderless.
After that, the team flew to the West Coast to play the Sharks on December 30 and the Los Angeles Kings on January 2. While Chimera joined them on the road trip, he did not play in their game against the Sharks, which they lost 5-2. As previously mentioned, losing to the Sharks in San Jose was not unusual as they had not beaten them there since 1993. Their next game would be against the Los Angeles Kings on January 2, another team they had trouble beating.
The Caps were 8-5 for December, getting the same number of wins that they had earned in October and November, except not gaining any points for losing in overtime. Their overall record was now 24-10-6, with 54 standings points. They still led the Southeast Division but were three points behind the New Jersey Devils for best record in the Conference. They were five points behind the San Jose Sharks who led the NHL in points overall. The Caps were tied for fourth with the Chicago Blackhawks in points overall.
Early January and Appointing New Captain
The Caps began 2010 the same way they ended 2009 – by losing. Given the caps had played so poorly against the Sharks on December 20, they had a practice in Los Angeles the next day instead of a day off to enjoy the city. It didn’t help as they lost to the Los Angeles Kings 2-1.
The Kings were another team the Caps historically had trouble beating in recent years. So, the Captain-less Caps finally returned home from the West Coast, riding a three-game losing streak that started after the departure of their former captain. Given their next game didn’t take place until January 5, at home against Montreal, there was time to speculate on who would succeed Chris Clark as Caps’ captain.
Would it be Alex Ovechkin? or would it be Brooks Laich? or even somebody else? The plan was to announce the new captaincy before that game. As it turned out, the Caps announced it before the game when performing player introductions, with the words, “…. And playing left wing, your captain, Alex Ovechkin!”
There was also a video showing the names and pictures of previous team captains. Whether having a captain appointed reenergized the team or gave them a psychological boost, or whether they were just relieved to be back at home, the team responded by breaking their three-game losing streak with a 4-2 win over Montreal. Captain Ovechkin was held off the scoresheet, but the second line, now centered by Tomas Fleischmann, had a great day. The Caps continued to win, beating Ottawa 5-2 at home and going to Atlanta and clobbering the Thrashers, 8-1.
After that was a trip to Florida, where the Capitals were scheduled to play back-to-back games, first with Tampa Bay on January 12 and then with the Florida Panthers on January 13.
Against Tampa Bay, the Caps fell behind 4-1 after the first period but came back to tie, only to give-up three unanswered goals to lose 7-4. The Caps could not stay out of the penalty box and gave up two power play goals after coming back to tie. This game is best known as the game where Ovechkin and Steve Downie had both taken roughing penalties. But once coming out of the penalty box, they would continue hostilities, with Ovechkin bracing for a fight with Downie. However, Matt Bradley jumped off the bench to fight Downie so that Ovechkin would not have to do so.
The next day, they played in Sunrise, Florida. Once again, they fell behind 4-1, this time being behind halfway through the game, but they scored again before the end of the second period. The Capitals scored two goals to tie. Hence, the game went to overtime, and then to a shootout, which they finally won in the sixth round. The final score was 5-4. It was an unremarkable win against a non-playoff caliber team. But it turned out to be the start of something special.
Contemporaneous report from Washington Post
Rest of January and The Streak
The Caps returned home for a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs on January 15. Prior to the game, there was suspense on whether Alexander Semin would play due to a medical issue. But Semin was back in time for the game and in the lineup.
It turned out he had gone to New York City to consult a specialist for his problematic wrist. In the end, the Caps won the game 6-1, with Ovechkin scoring, Knuble getting two goals, and Semin, who was iffy for the game, contributed two assists.
As it turned out, the forward lineup used in that game turned out to be the forward lineup they would use for the remainder of the month and for part of the next month, as well. They won the next two games at home against the Flyers and the Red Wings and then took a trip to Pittsburgh for a game on January 21.
It was a see-saw affair for the first two periods and tied 3-3 after the second period. But the Caps scored three unanswered goals during the third period and won 6-3. It was their fifth win in a row. They returned home for a game against Phoenix and won that game. They went away for the next game and clobbered the Islanders 7-2.
After that, they returned home for a three-game homestand against the Anaheim Ducks, the Panthers, and the Lightning. The win against the Lightning was their tenth win in succession which tied a 26 year old franchise record. The main thing marring that homestand was the fact that Mike Green suffered a knee contusion in the game against the Panthers and was also suspended for three games for a head hit he had levied earlier in that same game.
The Caps were 13-2-0 for the month of January, which marked the first time the Caps had ever won 11 games during the same month. Their overall record was now 37-12-6 for 80 points overall. It was the best record in the Eastern Conference and just one point behind the point total of the San Jose Sharks who led the NHL with 81 points.
February, Rest of the Streak and Pre-Olympics
As the month of February began, the question was how long would the Caps’ winning streak last. They started the month on the road, first going to Boston on February 2 to play the Bruins and then to New York on February 4 to play the New York Rangers. This trip coincided with a Caps’ fathers’ trip.
The Boston game started off poorly when the Bruins scored on a 5-on-3 man advantage in the first period. But the Caps tied it early in the second period and scored three unanswered goals during the third period to ice the 4-1 victory.
So, the streak reached 11 and a new franchise record. The Rangers game did not start well as they fell behind 2-1 in the first period. The Caps came back to pull ahead by one goal but then the Rangers scored three consecutive power play goals during the second period to take a 5-3 lead and put the streak in jeopardy. Ovechkin scored near the end of the period to put Caps within one goal. The Caps ended up scoring two power play goals during the third period to win 6-5 in a game chock full of minor penalties by both teams.
After that, the Caps returned home for two games, Friday February 5 against the Atlanta Thrashers and a Sunday afternoon matinee game against their arch-rivals, the Pittsburgh Penguins on February 7. The weather forecast for the Washington DC area was for a major snowstorm to hit on Friday afternoon, with conditions expected to deteriorate rapidly Friday evening during and after the time frame when the Caps would be playing the Thrashers. The Thrashers scored first, early in the first period but the Caps tied it up on an Ovechkin power play goal. The Caps added another goal in the second period to take the lead. And added two more in the third period to take a 4-1 lead. The Thrashers scored a short-handed goal to decrease the Caps’ margin. But the Caps added an empty net goal to win 5-2. The streak was now at 13.
Meanwhile, nearly two feet of snow fell in the Washington, DC area. Due to the airports being closed, the Penguins, who were playing a Saturday game in Montreal, could only fly as far as New Jersey and had to take a bus the rest of the way to Washington, DC, getting in very late that night.
But when the game started, Pittsburgh played as though they were the more rested team, as the Penguins scored two first period goals, both thanks to Sidney Crosby. Ovechkin scored midway through the second period to decrease the deficit to 2-1, but then Jordan Staal scored two goals to increase the deficit to 4-1.
Eric Fehr scored late in second period, so the score was now 4-2. The Caps had played much of first periods with either Knuble or Backstrom unavailable due to serving a 10 minute misconduct penalty.
Ovechkin scored two third period goals to tie up the score and finish his hat trick. The game proceeded to overtime, where Mike Knuble scored a power play goal as the Caps won 5-4 for their fourteenth win in a row.
But that game was the end of the winning streak. They went on the road where they lost to the Montreal Canadiens 6-5 on February 10 in overtime, wasting a Brooks Laich hat trick.
The next day, they lost in regulation to the Ottawa Senators 6-5, where they wasted an Alexander Semin hat trick. They closed out the pre-Olympic portion of their schedule by losing to the St Louis Blues 4-3 in a shootout. Their record for February was 4-1-2 as the team was now 41-13-8. They had 89 standings points, best in the NHL, one point ahead of the San Jose Sharks. The New Jersey Devils held the next highest point total in the Eastern Conference with 77. The Caps would not resume play until March 3.
The Caps started off the month of March by winning their first three games, beating the Sabres on the road and following that up by beating the New York Rangers and the Tampa Bay Lightning at home. They lost a shootout against the Dallas Stars, but followed that up with an overtime win against the Carolina Hurricanes and a loss against Tampa Bay.
After the long five-game home stand, they went on the road for four games. The first was a nationally televised game against the Chicago Blackhawks on March 14. The Caps fell behind 2-0 during the first period and Chicago added another goal during second period. The game was shaping up to be an “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” type game. Alex Ovechkin shoved Chicago defenseman, Brian Campbell into the boards midway through the first period. As Campbell was injured, Ovechkin was ejected from the game and the team given a major penalty. In keeping with that theme, Semin took two first period penalties. But the Caps came back during third period and tied the game at 3-3. The Caps won the game in overtime with a Backstrom goal as the final score was 4-3. But the boarding earned Ovechkin another two game suspension.
The Caps continued their road trip sans Ovechkin and won their next game against the Florida Panthers in Florida, but lost to the Carolina Hurricanes in overtime. Ovechkin was back for their game against Tampa Bay which they won. They returned home to play the Penguins on March 24 and beat the Penguins 4-3 in a shootout. The next day, they traveled to Carolina and lost to them in a shootout. That started a three game losing streak at home, when they lost to the Calgary Flames and the Ottawa Senators in overtime.
Their record in March was 8-2-4, as they won their typical number of games for each month. Their season record was now 49-15-12 which gave them 110 points and first place in the NHL and six points ahead of San Jose.
April – End of the Regular Season
They ended a home stand on April Fools Day against the Thrashers. They then traveled to Columbus on April 3 and beat the Jackets 3-2, which was their first win against that team in a while.
The Capitals returned home and beat the Bruins 3-2 in Overtime on April 5. After that was a 6-3 road win against the Pittsburgh Penguins. They ended the regular season when Boston came into Washington again on April 11. This time, Boston beat them in a shootout, when Head Coach Bruce Boudreau opted to use a non-standard lineup for the shootout shooters.
When the regular season was over, the Caps had a 54-15-13 which was the most wins and the most points they had ever earned during a season. They had a 5-1 record for the month of April. Now, it was onto the playoffs and a first round date with the Montreal Canadiens who had earned their playoff position on the last day of the season.
It had been a record setting regular season in many ways. The Caps had seven forwards score more than 20 goals, with Ovechkin scoring 50, Semin scoring 40, Backstrom scoring 33, and Knuble, Laich, Fleischmann, and Fehr all topping 20. Defenseman Mike Green came close with 19 goals. Ovechkin’s goal scoring had dropped off after the Olympic break, after Team Russia’s disappointing performance. He ended up finishing third in goals with 50 goals, just one goal behind Steven Stamkos and Sidney Crosby who tied for the league lead with 51.
The Caps began their playoff series at home against the Montreal Canadiens on April 15. The teams each scored one goal apiece during both the first period and the third period, proceeding to Overtime where Tomas Plekanec scored the game winner. This put the Caps into a 1-0 game deficit.
The teams resumed play in Washington DC on April 17. In Game two, the Caps fell behind 2-0 before first period was half over. But Tomas Fleischmann scored over halfway through the period to move the Caps within one goal. The score after one period was 2-1 in favor or Montreal.
During second period, Andrei Kostitsyn scored two goals to increase Montreal’s lead to 4-1. But the Caps scored again near the end of the period to decrease the deficit to 4-2. The Caps scored twice during the first half of the last period to tie the score. But then Montreal scored again to make the score 5-4. The Caps scored with less than two periods on a goal by John Carlson. The game proceeded to overtime where the Caps won 6-5 on an Overtime goal from Backstrom. The series was now tied at one game apiece as it moved to Montreal.
The Caps played the Canadiens in Montreal on April 19. This game went well for the Caps from the start when Boyd Gordon got a short handed goal about a minute into the contest. Caps scored three more goals that period and were up 4-0 after one period. The final score was 5-1 in a game that featured numerous minor penalties. Game 4 of the series took place on April 21. In this game, Ovechkin opened the scoring with a power play goal. Montreal tied it up soon afterwards. Montreal pulled ahead in the second period but Mike Knuble tied up the game near the end of the second period with a shorthanded goal. The Capitals scored three unanswered goals during third period, including an empty net goal by Mike Knuble. Montreal scored once more. But the Caps closed out the game with another empty net goal and won 6-3. Carey Price, Montreal’s goalie, earned his second unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on that goal.
But then the tide turned. Due to foggy weather conditions, the Caps’ plane could not land at Dulles Airport, so they had to land in Baltimore, instead. They also had to go through customs and the necessary personnel had not arrived yet. Hence, they did not leave the airport until very late. Head Coach, Bruce Boudreau, figured the Caps were better off going home to rest instead of practicing.
The Caps played at home on April 23. This time, the Canadiens started Jaroslav Halak in goal, given that Carey Price had not performed well in the previous games of that series. It worked well for Montreal as the Caps offense died and they lost 2-1.
They returned to Montreal for the game of April 26. This time, Montreal scored two goals during first period. They added another one in third period before the Caps scored. The final score in that game was 4-1.
They returned to Washington for Game 7 on April 28. They fell behind late in first period on a power play goal. The score remained 1-0 until late in the third when Montreal added another goal. The Caps scored a late goal but it was too little too late as they fell 2-1. The game featured a goal by Ovechkin that was called back due to a technicality. The President’s Trophy winning Caps were now the victims of one of the biggest playoff upsets of all time as their offense has dried up in the last three games. The Caps just could not score off Jaroslav Halak who was in goal the last three games.
Halak remained in goal when Montreal moved on to play the defending Stanley Cup Champion Penguins. The Canadiens fell behind in the series but won the series in seven games. The playoff story was the Capitals and Penguins getting “Halaked” in the playoffs.
It was the team’s first President’s Trophy ever. But the fact that the Caps fell in Round 1 of the playoffs made it an unsatisfying ending to the season, despite the great regular season play and the individual heroics.
By Diane Doyle