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A Tale of Two Phenoms -- Part V

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What if...

USA TODAY Sports

[Ed. Note: Back in the summer of 2009, Peerless penned a four-part fantasy tale of what the Washington Capitals might look like if they did not win the 2004 draft lottery and the right to select Alex Ovechkin with the first overall pick. Now, we thought it might be an entertaining diversion to contemplate what might have happened if the Caps won the 2004 lottery, then won the 2005 lottery as well.  The first four installments of the story can be found herehere, here, and here.  We pick up the story with the fifth and final installment…]

Part V of our look at a Washington Capitals team that won the 2005 NHL draft lottery opens with the Caps readying themselves to play in their second Stanley Cup final in team history.  Ten years after having been swept by the Detroit Red Wings in their only previous appearance in the finals, the Caps meet the Red Wings once more.

It is the latest step on a long slow climb from the depths of the selloff of players in 2003 and 2004, actions that left the Caps at the bottom of the NHL standings but in a position for high draft picks.  Combined with the luck of winning consecutive draft lotteries that enabled them to select Alex Ovechkin first overall in 2004 and Sidney Crosby first overall in 2005, the Caps opened June on the brink of doing something no Capitals team had accomplished in 32 seasons.

It was not just "The Alex and Sid Show," though.  The Caps overcame injury to the new number one goaltender they traded for to discover that the greatest goaltender in club history – Olaf Kolzig – still had a lot left to contribute.  They found the depth they needed from fresh young faces like Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, Brooks Laich, and Tomas Fleischmann.  They found a way to unleash the quirky talents of Alexander Semin.  It all came together under a coach suited well to the skills of the players presented to him.

In the Red Wings the Caps would face the platinum standard of performance in the NHL over more than a decade.  From 1995-1996, when they set an NHL record of 62 wins in a season, through the 2007-2008 season, the Red Wings averaged 49 wins a season, never finished lower than second in their division (they were on a seven-year run of divisional titles), and were appearing in their fourth Stanley Cup final, having won in each of their previous three appearances.  They would go into this final with the league’s best record (54-21-7; 115 points, fourth highest in franchise history).  It was not quite a battle between David and Goliath, but it would be one of the establishment trying to fend off the upstarts.

Confronting The Curse of the Octopus

When the Capitals took the ice for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final at Joe Louis Arena, they might not have cared or even been aware of history, but it was lurking nonetheless, perhaps with the octopus that found its way to the ice during the National Anthem.  A home team winning Game 1 of a final stood more than an 80 percent chance of winning the series.  If the visitor won the odds were not as good, but still better than 50 percent of winning the series.  Doing that was likely going to mean having to score first since the Red Wings led the league in wins (43) and winning percentage (.860) when scoring the game’s first goal in the 2007-2008 regular season.  In the first three rounds of the post-season the Red Wings were 10-1 when scoring first, 2-3 when they did not.

What Detroit did not face in the first three rounds, though, was an offense as prolific as the Capitals.  The Nashville Predators (12th in scoring offense), Colorado Avalanche (15th), and Dallas Stars (9th) were did not pose the threats Washington could bring, and it was evident early.  Goals by Eric Fehr and Viktor Kozlov in the first period giving Kolzig some room to work in goal and putting the Red Wings in a bind early in Game 1.

The last time Kolzig faced the Red Wings in a Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final he was strong but not strong enough, allowing two goals on 31 shots in a 2-1 loss.  They would have to lean on him once more, because two goals were all the Capitals would get in the opener.  Ten years might have aged Kolzig’s body, but it also gave him the experience needed to hold a lead in a hostile environment.  The Red Wings failed to get a puck by him on 33 shots, only the fourth time all season that Detroit was shut out and the first time since New Year’s Eve when the St. Louis Blues beat the Wings on this same ice sheet by the same 2-0 margin.

Having won the first game, the Caps looked to put the Red Wings in a deep hole with a sweep at The Joe.  The Wings would have none of it, at least early.  Detroit ended Kolzig’s shutout streak early on a power play goal bv Tomas Holmstrom.  That would be a recurring theme in this game, at least in terms of the Red Wings getting power play chances.  Penalties upset the rhythm for the Caps, and it kept the young guns – Ovechkin, Crosby, Green, Backstrom, and Semin – from getting regularly spaced shifts.  The Wings took advantage of the Caps’ frustration and frequent shorthandedness to wear down the defense and pot another power play goal in the second period.  The Caps made it close on an Ovechkin goal mid-way through the third period, but it was as close as the visitors would get.  Dan Cleary scored an empty net goal with under a minute left for the final 3-1 score, evening the series at a game apiece as the teams headed to Washington.

A Monumental Opportunity

The last time the Capitals hosted a Stanley Cup final, the stands in Verizon Center, what was then "MCI Center," were a sea of red.  Unfortunately, the Capitals color scheme at the time was black, bronze, and blue.  That sea of red was Red Wing fans sensing a Detroit sweep of the finals, a feat they accomplished in 1998.

This time, though, the winged wheel logo was in short supply in the stands and on the concourses.  The Capitals red jersey replaced the 1998 red in the Red Wings sweater.  A lot of pent up frustration over years of disappointment were unleashed in the pre-game ceremonies, the singing of the National Anthem, and as the puck was dropped for Game 3.  In the sixth minute, the arena exploded.  Milan Jurcina won a duel along the boards for a loose puck in the Capitals end and chipped it off the left wing boards out of the zone. Alex Ovechkin picked it up and sped down the wing, backing off defenseman Brian Rafalski.  Crossing the blue line, Ovechkin cut to the middle, then dropped the puck behind him to Sidney Crosby entering the zone.  Crosby took two strides and snapped a pass to Ovechkin, who curled to the side of the net to goalie Chris Osgood’s left.  Ovechkin had a tap-in goal, and the Caps had their first lead in their own building in a Stanley Cup final.

Then it was Alexander Semin’s turn to take over, displaying the uniquely creative talent that was still developing.  A curl-and-drag that left defenseman Brad Stuart defending air left Osgood with no chance and made it 2-0 after 20 minutes. A spin move by Semin around Niklas Kronwall and wrist shot over Osgood’s glove made it 3-0 four minutes into the second period.  His cross-ice pass to Nicklas Backstrom led to the Capitals’ fourth goal just before the end of the second period.  Detroit spoiled Kolzig’s shutout early in the third period on a Henrik Zetterberg goal, but one was all they could manage as the Caps skated off with a 4-1 win going into Game 4.

In Game 4 the Capitals had a chance to put their boot on the throat of the Red Wings, and in the first period, when Tomas Fleischmann pinballed a puck through a maze of bodies and past Osgood, it looked as if the Caps might do just that.  The Red Wings pushed back, though, and scored single goals in the first and second periods to take a 2-1 lead into the third period.  Washington pelted Osgood with 16 shots on goal in the final period but could not put on past him.  Steve Yzerman scored an empty net goal for a 3-1 win, and Detroit regained home ice advantage with the teams headed back to Detroit for Game 5.

A Last Trip to Motown?

This time it was Detroit’s turn to get a fast start. Johan Franzen scored his first two goals of the series to stake the Wings to a 2-0 lead after the first period.  The lead held up through much of the second period as the Red Wings played keep away with the puck.  With the clock winding down to a minute to play in the period, a Mike Green shot found its way through to Osgood, who made a pad save on the shot.  He could not corral the rebound, though, and Brooks Laich poked the puck under Osgood to get the Caps within a goal after 40 minutes.

In the third period Ovechkin and Fehr scored on consecutive shifts mid-way through the period to erase the Detroit lead and put the Caps up, 3-2.  The thunderclap left Joe Louis Arena silent as the Caps turned the game over to Kolzig.  There were scary moments late as Franzen’s bid for a hat trick hit the post and caromed out with 90 seconds left, but it was as close as Detroit would get to the equalizer.  The Caps grabbed back home-ice advantage with the 3-2 win and a chance to clinch their first Stanley Cup at home.

Bringing the Series Back Home

Game 6 would be the last game of the season at Verizon Center, win or lose.  It was deeper into the playoffs than any Caps team had gone in franchise history.  For all of their storied history, the Red Wings were out on the edges of their history as well.  They had not played a Game 7 on home ice in a Stanley Cup final since 1955, but were trying to extend the series to do just that.

One might have thought that like the early rounds of a heavyweight title fight, the two teams would have come out circling one another looking for an opening to land a blow.  They didn’t.  The Red Wings came out weaving through the neutral zone trying to impose their puck possession style on the Capitals.  At the other end Sidney Crosby and Nicklas Backstrom were moving linemates about like chess pieces with passes looking for an opening.

An entertaining first period ended with neither team able to score.  Early in the second period, the scoreless tie was broken.  Nicklas Lidstrom’s drive from the point found its way through a clot of bodies and eluded Kolzig before he could flinch.  Four minutes later, though, Tomas Holmstrom was sent off on a holding penalty.  Four seconds later the score was tied when Backstrom won the ensuing draw cleanly to Ovechkin, who wristed the puck past Osgood’s blocker.

That goal set of a flurry of end to end action, but once more neither team was able to break through and take control for themselves.  As the clock was ticking toward the five minute mark remaining in the period, it took a mistake – an uncharacteristic one at that – to break the tie.  Eric Fehr took a pass from Mike Green in the neutral zone and chipped the puck into the Red Wings’ end.  Osgood stopped the puck behind his net and sent it around the boards to Nicklas Lidstrom in the corner.  As Lidstrom swung in to collect the pass, the puck skittered past his stick blade and up the boards where Sidney Crosby was pinching in.  In one motion he backhanded a pass to Fehr in the slot, and Fehr’s one timer beat Osgood over his glove, his 11th goal of the post-season.

That would end the scoring for the second period, leaving the Capitals just 20 minutes from their first Stanley Cup. Those minutes ticked ever so slowly in the minds of Caps fans as the Red Wings ratcheted up their pressure.  Outshot 12-3 in the first ten minutes of the period, one might have thought it was a matter of "when," not "if" the Red Wings would get the equalizer.  Ramping up the pressure led to a mistake.

When Johan Franzen fired a shot wide on the short side of the net to Kolzig’s right, the puck rimmed around the end boards and up the wall where Kronwall was pinching in.  Trying to chip the puck into the corner, Kronwall whiffed, the puck rolling out over the blue line into the neutral zone.  It was all Ovechkin needed.  Circling up behind Kronwall to grab the loose puck, he was off on a break.  It was a matter of whether Ovechkin could beat Lidstrom, who was trying to cut off the angle to the middle of the ice.  Lidstrom had too much ground to make up, though.  Before he could get within a stick length to try and disrupt Ovechkin’s momentum, Ovechkin snapped a shot over Osgood’s glove and into the top of the net with 8:01 left in the game.

The goal took some of the air out of the Red Wings.  Having controlled the pace of play for much of the first 50 minutes, their passes were a hair too long or a second too late.  When they were able to mount an attack, Kolzig was a wall they could not penetrate.  The cheering started with three minutes to go, sounding as if one was standing behind a jet engine.  With two minutes left the Red Wings pulled Osgood hoping for a miracle.  It was the cue for fans to start waving the red towels they received when they entered the arena.  When the public address announcement came that there was one minute left in the period, no one could hear it.

The seconds ticked down, players on the Capitals bench now realizing just what it was they had done.  Crosby and Ovechkin were on the bench high-fiving one another.  Coach Bruce Boudreau could no longer stifle a smile.  The fans counted down the last ten seconds, and when Henrik Zetterberg fired the puck one last time the length of the ice, Kolzig gloved it and raised his arms skyward as the horn sounded.  The players poured off the bench, finally winners in a last post-season game, finally Stanley Cup champions.

The teams exchanged handshakes in the tradition of the Stanley Cup tournament, and the carpet was laid out to begin the Cup presentations ceremonies.  First was the Conn Smythe Trophy to be presented to the playoffs’ most valuable player.  There was no shortage of candidates.  Alex Ovechkin finished the post season with 14 goals and 22 points in 24 games.  Sidney Crosby was 4-20-24.  Nicklas Backstrom was the third Capital with 20 points on three goals and 17 assists.  There was the surprise of the post-season, Eric Fehr, who would become this generation’s John Druce with 11 goals in 24 games after coming into the playoffs with just three goals in 48 career regular season games.

When Commissioner Bettman made the announcement, no one could argue with the choice…

"First, I want to congratulate the Washington Capitals and the Detroit Red Wings on great seasons and a terrific Stanley Cup final… the winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy is Olie Kolzig…

For Kolzig the trophy was a long time in coming, having been in the running for it when he took the Capitals on his back and dragged them to the finals ten years earlier.  The smile he wore as he held the trophy aloft spoke volumes about the joy in that wait being over.  Then it came time for the presentation of the Stanley Cup.  The Cup’s attendants in their white gloves slowly walked the chalice down the carpet at center ice and placed it on the table.  Commissioner Bettman followed and made the announcement 18,000-plus fans in the stands were waiting all night – in fact more than 30 years – to hear…

"It takes two great teams to compete for this marvelous trophy.  Washington…you had a marvelous year; this was well-earned.  Congratulations to Ted Leonsis and the ownership group, George McPhee, Bruce Boudreau, and the rest of the coaching staff, and most importantly the players of the Washington Capitals.  Chris Clark… come get the Stanley Cup."

Clark, who had been injured earlier in the season and missed the last 24 games of the regular season and the playoffs, happily accepted the trophy and took a turn around center ice before passing it off to the old man of the Capitals, the veteran who might not have played a minute of the post-season but for a twist of fate, and who took advantage of the opportunity to be his team’s and the tournament’s most valuable player.  Olie Kolzig seemed taller than his six-feet, three-inches as he held the Cup skyward for the fans to see as he skated around the glass.  He passed it to Alex Ovechkin, whose arrival coincided with the beginning of a three-year rise from frustration to a championship.  From Ovechkin it was passed to Crosby, then to Green, then to Backstrom and onward through the cast of players who brought the first championship of any kind to Washington in a major sport more than 16 years.

For the fans, 32 years of frustration, disappointment, and heartache were sponged away.  It was time to party.  For many, they could not bear to leave the arena, taking in the sights and looking around in disbelief over what took place this evening on the ice sheet beneath them.  Outside, the party spilled onto 7th Street and the surrounding neighborhood and went far into the happiest night imaginable.

Epilogue…

Of course, none of this happened.  Well, some of it did.  Except for the narrative about the Capitals, we tried to be as faithful as possible to the history of the 2005-2008 period with respect to teams and events.  In twisting history to send that 2005 ping pong ball the Capitals’ way, we were mindful that chance is not determinative with respect to outcomes.  In other words, winning the lottery – twice in this instance – helps, but it is not enough to reach the top of the mountain.  Roster building is art as much as science, from the stars to the grinders, to marrying philosophy with talent.  And, one needs some surprises here and there.

That Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby would be the central characters of this play was the point, given the circumstances we were exploring.  But there were also the other young guns on the squad who came before and after – Alexander Semin, Mike Green, and Nicklas Backstrom.  Up and down the roster there were contributions, too.  And, it doesn’t hurt to have surprises, to have a player unexpectedly emerge as a force, as Eric Fehr did in this fantasy, as a Maxime Talbot did for real in 2009 (eight post-season goals for the Pittsburgh Penguins, two in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final) or that Bryan Bickell did for the Chicago Blackhawks in 2013 (nine goals in the post-season, including one in the Cup-clinching game).

Hockey is a 23-man enterprise, and what you build around a star is often as important as the stars that come from lottery picks.  Everyone has to play a role and fill it effectively. And sometimes a bit of luck is needed to deal with the odd twists of fate that accompany a two month-long journey.  But gee, it would have been nice to win that 2005 lottery to see what would have happened.