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The Capitals have had many memorable games that took place on either the day before or the day after Thanksgiving. This post looks at a game between the Washington Capitals and Atlanta Thrashers on November 26, 2008, the eve of Thanksgiving Day, which came after a difficult “road trip from hell” and featured strong play at home and a hat trick.
On November 26, 2008, the day before Thanksgiving 2008, the Washington Capitals held a record of 11-7-3 and had returned home for a game against the Thrashers following a forgettable road trip during which they went a dismal 1-3-1 and also had numerous players suffer injuries.
The last game on the road trip was particularly brutal in the injury department as defensemen Jeff Schultz and John Erskine, and forwards Boyd Gordon and Chris Clark all sustained ailments on top of players that were already out injured. The mounting injuries meant there were many holes that needed to be filled. The Capitals were hoping that some “home cooking” at Verizon Center (now Capital One Arena) would remedy the difficult stretch they found themselves in. The Thrashers, meanwhile, were in a slump of their own, having lost their last three games in a row and owned a record of 8-10-2.
Going into their Thanksgiving Eve game, the Caps were in first place in the Southeast Division and were one standings point ahead of the Carolina Hurricanes, but were on the precipice of losing the top spot being mired in a three-game losing streak. In addition, their numerous injuries included Alexander Semin, Chris Clark, Sergei Fedorov, Mike Green, Jeff Schultz, John Erskine, and Boyd Gordon; Clark and Schultz were moved to Long-Term Injured Reserve. To replace the mounting injuries, the Capitals recalled several rookies from the Hershey Bears, their American Hockey League affiliate, including defenseman Karl Alzner (first-round pick from 2007) , forward Chris Bourque (second-round pick from 2004), defenseman Sami Lepisto (third-round pick from 2004), and forward Graham Mink.
Just over three minutes into the first period of their contest against Atlanta, defenseman Tobias Enstrom of the Thrashers was whistled for hooking, which put the Capitals on a power play. Less than 30 seconds into the man-advantage, superstar forward Alex Ovechkin passed to Lepisto at the top of the offensive zone. Lepisto backed off from the wall at the right point and passed it back to Ovechkin, who fired a one-timer past Thrashers goaltender Ondrej Pavelec giving the Capitals a 1-0 on his 10th goal of the season.
The Caps added another goal four minutes later when forward Eric Fehr passed to veteran Center Michael Nylander, who sent a touch pass to Tomas Fleischmann who sent a cross-ice pass back to Fehr, who buried it in the Atlanta twine to put the home team ahead by two. The Thrashers got on the board when forward Bryan Little scored a power play marker at 12:08 of the opening frame, while Capitals second-year Center Nicklas Backstrom was in the penalty box for hooking; Little received assists from Ilya Kovalchuk and Todd White.
Nearly two minutes later (less than a minute after Thrashers forward Colby Armstrong earned a roughing penalty), Ovechkin scored his second power play goal of the period and second goal of the game, on a sequence that saw Fleischmann pass to Viktor Kozlov, who was in the high slot. Kozlov faked a shot and then passed to Ovechkin, who was low to the right of Pavelec. The Capitals owned a 3-1 lead heading into the first intermission.
Ovechkin would not wait long into the second frame to complete the hat trick. Less than a minute into the period, Ovechkin accepted the puck from defenseman Tom Poti, and shot the puck past Pavelec to push Washington’s lead to 4-1. The Caps now lead 4-1. Ovechkin now had his 12th goal of the year and the team lead, in a season in which where he had begun the 2008-09 campaign in a slump.
Atlanta got another goal just over 13 minutes into the period when nearly a minute into a power play of their own, veteran forward Vyacheslav Kozlov scored his 12th goal of the year on assists from Little and Kovalchuk. The two teams would head into the second intermission with the Capitals ahead by two, 4-2.
At the 1:20 mark of the final period, the Capitals’ Viktor Kozlov scored on an assist from Ovechkin, which put the hosts ahead 5-2. The Thrashers would answer over 10 minutes later at the 12:28 mark when Nathan Ovstrick scored on assists from Todd White and Mathieu Schneider. The 5-3 score stood for the remainder of regulation and ended as the final score.
The victory ended a difficult stretch for then-Head Coach Bruce Boudreau’s Capitals. While Atlanta was a relatively weak opponent, the Capitals had many new players to integrate into their lineup on a short notice. Alzner, a rookie blueline, logged the second-highest amount of ice time during his NHL debut (21:06) behind only Ovechkin, who logged 21:32.
Alzner spoke after the game, “It feels like I’m at home, and that’s nice. I know the fans always count on high picks to be impact players.”
This game was the eighth straight game in which the Caps scored at least one power play goal and their performance on the man-advantage improved their record to 12-7-3 and their home record to 8-0-1.
Boudreau talked about the team’s success at home, “The fans give us the advantage, that’s one thing…We want to be a dominant team at home, we want teams to go, ‘Uh-oh, we’re coming into Washington. We want our building to be an intimidating factor.”
He also talked about the performances of Alzner and Lepisto, the two rookie defensemen who had just been recalled, “I think Karl and Sami moved the puck really well, It’s what we wanted them to do. The forwards get the puck and consequently we get five goals.”
Boudreau praised Viktor Kozlov, who had one goal and two assists in the game, saying, “He’s the silent one on that [first] line. Kozy just goes about his business. But when he is on, he is a really a good player.”
The injury bug continued to affect the team. Defenseman Tom Poti injured his groin during the game and still another defenseman, Bryan Helmer, was called up to replace him.
Box Score from Hockey Reference
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By Diane Doyle