October 31 is best known for Halloween, a day famous for (among many things) ghosts, goblins, and haunted houses. For the Washington Capitals hockey team, October 31, 2003 was the end of a month of horrors, perhaps the worst in the team’s history since the 1981-82 season. The Capitals won their first game of the 2003-04 season by a score of 6-1, but going into the game of October 31, had not won a game since then.
Going into the game on October 31, the second of a two-game homestand at MCI Center, the Capitals’ record was 1-7-1. The team had lost their last six games in a row. To add insult to injury, they had not scored more than two goals in any game since the second game of the season and had scored a total of 10 goals in their prior seven games.
The overall anemic offensive output came despite the presence of veteran offensive star players in the lineup such as Jaromir Jagr, Robert Lang, Peter Bondra and Dainius Zubrus. Just a few days earlier, Jagr had complained about his playing time under then-Head Coach Bruce Cassidy.
For this game, Cassidy made some lineup changes; he first reunited Jagr with center Robert Lang and also scratched forwards Brian Sutherby and veteran Kip Miller in favor of 19-year old rookie Alexander Semin, who had not played in the previous three games, and Brian Willsie who had not played in the prior game. The goalie matchup was Olaf Kolzig for the Capitals and Pasi Nurminen for the Thrashers.
The game did not start out well for the Capitals. With John Gruden of the Capitals in the penalty box for boarding, Vyacheslav Kozlov scored on the ensuing power play to give Atlanta a 1-0 lead at 5:30. His goal came on assists from Ilya Kovalchuk and Marc Savard. This was Kozlov’s third goal of the season.
Just over two minutes later, at 7:41, the Capitals evened up the score when Matt Pettinger scored, unassisted. He picked up the puck from near the blueline and finished with a wrist shot for the score. During his four years in the NHL at that point in time, he had scored a total of eight goals. [Author’s Note: he later scored 20 goals during the 2005-06 season.]
Near the end of the period, Kovalchuk was whistled for a roughing penalty, which put the Caps on the power play. Just six seconds later, Semin of the Capitals faked right and beat Nurminen on the left with a backhander; the goal was the first in Semin’s NHL career and put the Capitals ahead 2-1. Semin had been buzzing around Nurminen for much of the period and was finally rewarded. Semin’s power-play goal was just the team’s ninth in 57 chances that season.
Overall for the period, the Capitals outshot Atlanta, 20-5. Their prior high in shots for a period that season was 18.
There was no scoring in the second period but there was a fight near the middle of the frame between Stephen Peat of the Capitals and Francis Lessard of Atlanta. Both teams also took minor penalties that period but no scoring results.
There was no scoring during the third period. However, it featured two Capitals minor penalties which provided suspense for the hometown crowd, who desired a kill; rookie Boyd Gordon and Dainius Zubrus both took minor penalties that period. Fortunately, the Capitals killed both penalties and held on to win 2-1 with Semin’s first NHL goal proving to be the game winner. The win was only the Capitals’ second win of the season.
Capitals veteran forward Peter Bondra spoke about Semin’s goal, acting as interpreter for the young Russian, who did not speak English very well at the time.
“The goalie forced him to make that play. He is very happy to have his first NHL goal. He was ready for his chance. It all depends on if Coach is going to play him or not, but he was ready and excited to play.”
Coach Bruce Cassidy continued the discussion of the Semin goal.
“I missed half of it because I was talking to the next group that was up. All of a sudden, he was gone like a flash. That’s some of the stuff that’s been talked and written about. We’ve seen a bit of that ability, and I’m glad he got his goal.”
Goalie Olie Kolzig, who had 19 saves, also spoke with the media following the game.
“We definitely played with vigor and determination and we played hard the whole game. But we’ve still got a long way to go to claw our way out. It’s going to be a lot of work because playing like this is not easy.”
In talking about the team’s earlier slump, Kolzig said, “We didn’t play our system. We didn’t play together. We had too many turnovers. We have to put the puck deep in corners and play harder.”
Cassidy discussed the team’s victory. “Right now, we need that. I didn’t think a 19-year-old kid and Matt Pettinger would get us out of it [the slump], goal scoring-wise, but you need everybody. That just shows you. Certainly the chances are there for the big guys and it’s going to happen, and when it does it’s going to light up the scoreboard.”
The team performed better in November than they did in October, but still had a losing record for the month of November. The Capitals ultimately fired Cassidy on December 10 and replaced him with Glen Hanlon.
With the team unable to get on track, then-Capitals General Manager George McPhee traded away most of the team’s veteran stars to include Lang, Bondra, Jagr, and Steve Konowalchuk for picks and prospects. The team barely finished out of the cellar, beating Pittsburgh by one point, but would go on to win the draft lottery for the right to draft Alexander Ovechkin.
By Diane Doyle
Game Recap From Baltimore Sun
Game Recap From Sun Journal
Game Recap From UPI
Game Recap From Arab News
Game Recap From LA Times
Box Score From Hockey Reference
Nova Caps: Capitals Games on Halloween