The Washington Capitals have had many memorable games late in the month of March, the official beginning of springtime. It’s typically a time frame when teams are solidifying their playoff position or making a late push to simply qualify for the playoffs.
In the spring of 2008, the Capitals were simply trying to make the playoffs. They were at the bottom of the NHL on Thanksgiving Day and still near the bottom on New Year’s Day. By late March the Capitals were battling for a playoff spot as they visited the Atlanta Thrashers on March 21, 2008.
This visit to Atlanta was the third game on a six game road swing for the Capitals. The Caps were 33-30-8 and were in tenth place overall in the Eastern Conference but just two points shy of eighth place and a playoff berth.
The Caps had gone 8-4 since the trade deadline and felt good about their overall game, even though they had lost their most recent game, 5-0, to the Chicago Black Hawks in Chicago.
Meanwhile the Thrashers were 31-37-8. They had lost their previous four games and six out of their last seven. Prior to that, they had compiled an eight-game losing streak, which started in mid-February and dragged on through early March. The Caps had beaten the Thrashers 4-1 in their most recent head-to-head matchup on March 16.
The Thrashers’ leading scorer was Ilya Kovalchuk, who had 50 goals on the season already. The Caps’ leading scorer was Alex Ovechkin who had 58 goals going into the game, approaching the 60-goal threshold, which nobody in the NHL had reached for more than 12 years.
On the injury front, the Caps were missing center Michael Nylander, who had rotator cuff surgery, right winger Chris Clark winger Donald Brashear, and defensemen Brian Pothier and John Erskine.
The goaltending matchup was Cristobal Huet for the Capitals against Kari Lehtonen for the Thrashers. The Caps had acquired Huet from the Montreal Canadiens at the trade deadline.
Because Kolzig could no longer perform at the high level he was accustomed to playing at in the past, the Caps felt they needed help in goaltending. Kolzig was the losing goaltender in their recent loss to Chicago.
Photos: NHL via Getty Images
The first period was relatively quiet at the start. Boris Valabik of the Thrashers was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct at 3:00 and Sergei Fedorov of the Caps was penalized for boarding at 12:37, but neither team could convert on the ensuing power plays.
But less than a minute after Sergei Fedorov’s penalty expired and the the Caps were back at even strength, Alex Ovechkin scored his 59th goal of the season at 15:18. He was assisted by Nicklas Backstrom and Viktor Kozlov. The Caps now led 1-0, a margin that held up through first intermission. For the period, the Caps had eight shots on goal while the Thrashers had just six.
The second period was a different story. At 3:33, Quintin Laing was sent to the penalty box for hooking, Nearly 40 seconds later, Tobias Engstrom of the Thrashers potted the game tying goal at 4:11. He was assisted by Mark Recchi and Vyacheslav Kozlov. This was Engstrom’s sixth goal of the season.
At 7:25, the Caps received a power play of their own when Bobby Holik earned a delay of game penalty for shooting the puck out of play. However, 30 seconds into the power play, Jim Slater got a breakaway chance after receiving a pass from Eric Perrin and scored a short-handed goal for his fifth goal of the season. The Thrashers now led 2-1.
Slater added another goal for the Thrashers with just under four minutes left in the period, at 16:06. He was assisted by Eric Perrin and Colby Armstrong.
A frustrating period for the Caps ended with the score still 3-1. The Caps outshot the Thrashers 14-10.
[Note: Slater, who scored the two goals for the Thrashers, eventually got a position in Player Development for the Capitals, a position he has held since September 2019.]
The Caps finally scored with their sixteenth shot of the period at 11:30 when Alex Ovechkin scored his second goal of the same and his 60th goal of the season. He tied Dennis Maruk’s franchise record with that goal.
This goal was the first time since the 1995-96 season that an NHL player scored 60 goals in a season. During that season, both Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr topped that milestone, with Lemieux getting 69 goals and Jagr getting 62.
For his milestone goal, Ovechkin was assisted by Mike Green and Tom Poti. The Caps had cut their deficit to 3-2.
At 16:00, Nicklas Backstrom scored the tying goal with four minutes left in the game, getting assists from Mike Green and goalie Cristobal Huet. The score was now 3-3. Just 32 seconds later, Backstrom scored his second goal of the game, getting an assist from Ovechkin, which put the Caps ahead 4-3.
Boyd Gordon added an empty net goal with less than a second left to give the Caps an insurance goal and a 5-3 lead. He got assists from Brooks Laich and Alex Ovechkin.
The final score was 5-3. Ultimately, the Caps had 23 shots for third period, as opposed to just two for the Thrashers. For the game, the Caps had 45 shots to the Thrashers’ 18.
Capitals Head Coach Bruce Boudreau spoke to the media after the game, “Not in one period, but there was quite a sense of urgency. I thought we were really bad in the second. We knew how difficult it would be if we didn’t come home with two points in this game that it was going to be a real uphill climb to make the playoffs. Not that it already isn’t.” Said Boudreau.
“I think it was a case of a team really wanting it more and having something to play for. Once you get into that prevent defense, boy, it’s hard to get out of it. And that’s what happened. I thought Lehtonen was extremely good in the third period for a guy that let in three goals. We just kept coming. It was a good sign.”
Boudreau also talked about whether the result of the game saved the Caps’ season.
“It didn’t save it, but it’s sure going to make me sleep a little easier until Tuesday. That’s for sure. It’s a game, when you’re ahead of a team in the standings, you’re really counting on winning this game. We knew they were going to come out and give it everything they’ve got. What else do you have other than to be a spoiler to get satisfaction out of it? And they played really good I thought in the first and second. They had a lot of energy. But once we started to come in and basically exerted our will on them, I thought we were much hungrier in the third period.”
Ovechkin talked to the media about the fact that it was a big win.
“It’s a big win for us. We played well in the first period. After we make a couple mistakes and they score three goals, we just say, ‘Guys, it’s our chance and we can’t stop. We fight for this all year. We can’t just let it go.’ It was a very big game for us and I’m happy for the team,” said Ovechkin.
“We just started working. It’s all about work on our team. If we want it, we can beat every team. We started to play well in the beginning of the third period. We dominate them and they don’t have chances to score goal. We play three lines and everybody push each other, fight [for] each other and we get results.”
Ovechkin also talked about his goals.
“It’s always fun to score goals, especially when it’s important goals. It was a very important goal for my team. Sixty is 60.”
He was asked about how many more goals he could score and he replied, “I don’t know. I don’t think about it. I just do my job. I don’t think about personal goals. It’s just the team. We have to take every point we can get.”
Head Coach Bruce Boudreau also talked about Ovechkin’s performance.
“If there’s ever a case for who’s the MVP of the league, I’ve got to believe he said it on the ice tonight. I thought in the third period he said, ‘Get on my back and we’re going to go.’ I thought he was phenomenal in the third period.”
The Caps were now 37-31-8 and 7 points behind the Carolina Hurricanes for the Southeast Division lead. The Caps returned home to practice for two days before resuming their long road trip in the south.
The win over the Thrashers turned out to be the first win of a season-ending winning streak where they ultimately overtook the Carolina Hurricanes for first place in the division.
Ovechkin went on to score 65 goals for the season. Unfortunately, the Caps lost the first round of the playoffs to the Philadelphia Flyers in seven games.
Ovechkin ended up leading the NHL in points as well as goals, earning him the Rocket Richard Trophy for most goals, the Art Ross Trophy for most points, the Lester Pearson trophy for best player as voted for by the players, and the Hart Trophy for Most Valuable player. Head Coach Bruce Boudreau won the Jack Adams Trophy for Best Coach.
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By Diane Doyle