It is that time of the year when we all look back on the year about to pass, and we are no exceptions. Oh, the "we" part. You've been reading our weekly scribbles for a few weeks now, and maybe it's time you met the cousins who have joined me at the bar for reminiscence.
Fearless is the erudite of the family, a bona fide graduate of Harvard, or so he tells people. The truth is, he is a graduate of Harverd, an online school for which the only accredited course of study is "Duck Dynasty: The American House of Medici." Feerless has an optimistic view of things generally, but he will take his sweet time getting there, rhetorically speaking.
Then there is Cheerless. Families have black sheep, villages have idiots. Cheerless is a two-fer in this regard. Hockey is his life. How it became so will give you an idea of what we're working with. When he was in the third grade (for, oddly enough, the third time), his pals invited him to play hockey. He thought they meant "hooky," and thinking that he had a chance to skip the rigors of readin' writin', and ‘rithmetic, he jumped at the chance. When he found out he could carry a stick and only get five minutes for fighting instead of a mark on his permanent record (whatever that is), he found his muse.
As the year ends, the cousins and I could not help but look back on the year that was. Guys, it's been quite a year...
Fearless: Lockout, new divisions, a short season, a new season. The one constant seems to be Alex Ovechkin.
Cheerless: Yeah, and the Caps getting an early start on golf.
Peerless: Yeah, it had something for everyone. The old and the new. Enough to fill 12 months, to be sure. January was enough to fill a year's worth of highlights.
Fearless: If this is another plug for that wordy nonsense you penned back then...
Peerless: No, but that aside, when January started we didn't even know we would have hockey this year. When the year started the NHL Players Association was threatening to dissolve, the league was going to court arguing that the union was bargaining in bad faith.
Fearless: But things worked out in the end, the union didn't dissolve, mediators reconvened to work with the two sides, and by the 6th, they had a deal. We had a season to celebrate after all.
Cheerless: And then the Caps went 1-5-1 in January.
Peerless: Well, they had a whole new coaching staff, a whole new system to implement, no training camp, no exhibition games. Alex Ovechkin was playing a new position.
Fearless: For three games, anyway.
Peerless: Quite right. New head coach Adam Oates had an idea that Alex Ovechkin - a right-handed winger - might get better looks and better shooting angles if he flipped wings from his accustomed left side to the right side. Ovechkin had played his entire NHL career on the left side, and this was no small tweak. This was a new position that would take time learning and getting used to.
Fearless: Yes...three games.
Peerless: No one said it would be a smooth transition. Ovechkin played on the right side for three games, all losses. He had one point, an assist on a Matt Hendricks goal in a 4-2 loss to Winnipeg in Game 2 of the season. He already had his troubles in the abbreviated training camp. Now he was just ineffective. Surely, he wanted to return to the comfort zone of playing the left side.
Adam Oates obliged in Game 4 at New Jersey. Sure enough, 17 seconds into the game, there was Ovechkin on the left side. Only he was not being centered by long-time linemate Nicklas Backstrom, or free agent signing Mike Ribeiro, for that matter. He was being centered by Jay Beagle with Joey Crabb over on right wing. Adam Oates remarked about the switch (presumably with a straight face), "I actually thought that they provided a lot of speed for him and could maybe back the ‘D' off. And to get back to balance. Obviously, during the course of a game you can change it back and go through combinations. But I liked our balance." It was not the smoothest of starts to the season for the Caps.
Cheerless: And they were dead last in the Eastern Conference at the end of January...
Fearless: Dead last in the league, actually.
Cheerless: yeah, emphasis on "dead."
Peerless: Are you two quite through?
Cheerless: Nope, we got 10 more months to cover...
Peerless: At least February started on a high note, a 3-2 win over Philadelphia. Nicklas Backstrom had a goal and an assist, Braden Holtby stopped 29 of 31 shots for his first win after two ugly looking losses and baseball cap duty for five games. All was right with the world.
Cheerless: And Ovechkin wasn't playing with Beagle and Crabb anymore.
Fearless: ...or with Backstrom. Now he was on a line with Mike Ribeiro and Wojtek Wolski.
Cheerless: ...and then they lost their next three games, two of them to Pittsburgh!
Peerless: That had to qualify as the nadir of the season for the Caps...
Fearless: The nadir of the regular season, that is...
Cheerless: Wait, what? What does the guy who ran for President have to do with this?
Fearless: Not "Nader," "nadir"... the lowest point.
Peerless: That it was. When the Caps lost three in a row after their win over Philly, their record dropped to 2-8-1. It was their worst 11-game start since starting the 2003-2004 season 2-8-1.
Cheerless: And we know how that ended.
Fearless: Ah, but then the perfect remedy appeared.
Peerless: Nope. The Florida Panthers. Not once, but twice. The Caps and Panthers fought a home-and-home set, and for the Caps it was just what the doctor ordered. Not that it was without its moments. The Caps pounded the Panthers, 5-0, in the first game of the set. Ovechkin had a goal, Joel Ward had a goal. Shoot, Troy Brouwer had a pair. Jeff Schultz...Jeff Freakin' Schultz!...had an assist and seven shot attempts. Easy, right?
Cheerless: Somethin' tells me it weren't.
Peerless: Well, it weren't...uh, wasn't. Three days later the Caps went down to Florida and fell behind not once... not twice... but three times. They were down by a pair of goals with just over five minutes left in regulation. Then Florida went all Florida. The Caps got to within a goal when Eric Fehr got behind all the Panthers, none of them below the dots in their own zone, to tip in a Mike Green shot. Then Jonathan Huberdeau slashed John Carlson to put the Caps on a power play. The Caps scored off the ensuing faceoff to tie the game.
Regulation ended that way, but Florida was not done being Florida. Just 32 seconds in, Troy Brouwer went in on a break. Florida was so out of it on defense that Brouwer, who had his first shot stopped by goalie Scott Clemmensen, had time for another whack at the puck, sending that one past Clemmensen for a 6-5 comeback overtime win.
Cheerless: The high point of the month.
Peerless: You might say that. The Caps went 2-3-0 after those back-to-back wins over the Panthers to finish February 7-11-1, still dead last in the Eastern Conference.
Fearless: At least they were up to 29th in the league.
Peerless: March started with a bang. There is a lead-in to that. Out in Vancouver, the Canucks wanted to activate Steve Pinizzotto (a former Capitals farm hand at Hershey) from injured reserve, but they did not have the roster spot to do it. To open up a roster spot the Canucks put Aaron Volpatti on waivers. He was claimed by, you guessed it, the Caps. His first game with Washington was the first game of March, a road contest against the Winnipeg Jets. On his fourth shift, as the first period was winding down in a scoreless game, Volpatti announced his presence. He took on Anthony Peluso in a fight. Peluso, who had four inches and ten pounds on Volpatti, made short work of him. However, it might have awakened the Caps. Washington got a goal from Matt Hendricks in the second period, then got two less than a minute apart in the third period from Troy Brouwer and Mike Ribeiro. That, plus a 35-save effort from Braden Holtby, was enough to send the Caps off with a 3-0 win to begin March.
Fearless: And it almost ended before it started with that ghastly start to their next game.
Peerless: The Caps, fresh off that win in Winnipeg, returned home to face the Boston Bruins and promptly crapped the bed. Brad Marchand scored shorthanded, then the Bruins scored goals less than 90 seconds apart late in the period to take a 3-0 lead into the locker room at the first intermission.
Cheerless: The Caps had ‘em right where they wanted ‘em.
Peerless: Right you are, cuz. Mike Ribeiro got the Caps on the board (defenseman Steve Oleksy getting his first NHL point), then defenseman Tomas Kundratek scored his first NHL goal with an assist to Eric Fehr (note: that's foreshadowing) to get the Caps within a goal at the second intermission. Wojtek Wolski got the Caps even with another primary assist to Fehr (note: more foreshadowing) with just over six minutes left in regulation. Then, just 37 seconds into overtime, Fehr finished things on his own, splitting two defenders and roofing the puck into the net while tumbling to the ice.
Cheerless: Yeah, well...
Peerless: OK, the Caps made it three in a row with a win over Florida, then...
Cheerless: ..lost three in a row.
Peerless: Then won...
Cheerless: Then lost...
Peerless: Then won...
Cheerless: Then lost...
Fearless: Then they went to Winnipeg.
Peerless: For back-to-back games against the Jets. It had all the makings of a series that would stick a fork in the Caps' season. The Caps were stuck in fourth place in the Southeast Division, 14th place in the Eastern Conference, nine points behind the Jets for the division lead and seven points out of eighth-place and the last playoff spot with 19 games left to play.
Fearless: Then the Caps found their goalie.
Peerless: Exactly. Folks might forget that to this point Braden Holtby was 10-10-0, 2.92, .911. He had not yet grabbed the number one netminding role by the throat. He did in this series. In 120 minutes of work Holtby stopped 60 of 61 shots, shutting out the Jets by a 4-0 margin (his second straight shutout of Winnipeg), then sitting back and letting the skaters score two goals in each of the three periods of a 6-1 win.
Starting with that back-to-back sweep the Caps finished March on a 4-1-1 run that left them third in the Southeast Division, just four points behind Winnipeg, and in 11th place in the conference, just one point behind the New York Rangers for the eighth and last playoff spot in the East.
Cheerless: Then came April.
Fearless: Ah, April in Paris. A stroll down the Rue Moufffetard, sitting at a café watching all of Paris going by, it was...
Cheerless: The only "Paris" you've been to was Paris, Pennsylvania, when you got lost trying to go to a Caps game in Pittsburgh.
Peerless: Meanwhile, back to the look back at the Caps' year, the Caps still had some of that hill left to climb as the month got started. They took a step with a 5-3 win in Carolina to start things off. Then, they made a trade. It was not without controversy. On April 3rd the Caps sent forward Filip Forsberg, perhaps their number two overall prospect (after Evgeny Kuznetsov), to the Nashville Predators for winger Martin Erat and minor leaguer Michael Latta. Draft picks can be, of course, trading assets as well as players to develop. But for a team that prided itself on building through the draft it seemed an odd "win now" sort of transaction.
The trade caused a ripple, but not much more than that as the Caps won their next game - Erat's first with the club -- then won again... and again... and again. The Caps went 8-for-8 to start the month, making it the sixth consecutive season in which the Caps had a winning streak of seven games or more. By the time the streak hit its eighth game the Caps had overtaken Winnipeg for the Southeast Division lead and had the fifth best record in the Eastern Conference.
As you might expect, the Caps were being led by their captain. Having closed out March with eight goals in his last eight games of the month, Alex Ovechkin started April with ten goals in his first eight games, all of them wins for the Caps, including a hat trick against Florida on April 6th, his second hat trick of the season.
It made for a great start to a finishing kick that saw the Caps go 11-1-1 in April, finish the season with their seventh divisional crown, head into the playoffs as a three-seed, and take to the post season the sort of momentum that could lead to a deep run.
Cheerless: We're gonna need another round.
Fearless: ...or two.
Peerless: You're buyin'.
(next: playoffs and awards, history repeating itself)