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A Tale of Two Phenoms -- Part IV

What if...?

Patrick Smith

[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 installment of the story can be found here, the second one here, and the third one here. We pick up the story with the fourth installment…]

We come to Part IV of our look at what might have happened had the Washington Capitals won the 2005 draft lottery and the right to select Sidney Crosby.  It picks up with the Caps facing some hard decisions as they head into the trading deadline and the home stretch of the 2007-2008 season.

The Capitals headed into the last weekend before the trading deadline of the 2007-2008 season with the best record in the Eastern Conference, 37-17-7, five points ahead of the Ottawa Senators.  There were cracks appearing in the Capitals' armor, though.  Over his previous 17 appearances goalie Olaf Kolzig had a save percentage of just .891 and a goals against average pushing 3.00.  Kolzig did not help his cause when he allowed six goals on 36 shots in a 6-3 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday before the trading deadline.

It was enough for the Caps to work the phones.  On Tuesday, the 26th, the team pulled the trigger on a trade, sending a second round pick in the 2009 entry draft to Montreal for goaltender Cristobal Huet.  The move seemed to rejuvenate Kolzig's game, although the two netminders were largely alternating starts after the trade.  Only once over the three weeks following the deal did either goaltender allow as many as three goals in a game, Kolzig allowing three to the Toronto Maple Leafs in a 3-2 loss on March 1st.

Meanwhile, the Caps were doubling up on opponents, outscoring them 38-19 heading into the contest with the Chicago Blackhawks on March 19th.  The Blackhawks, who were honoring hall of fame goalie Tony Esposito, unleashed a barrage on Kolzig in the Capitals' net from the opening puck drop.  Chicago recorded six shots in less than 90 seconds to start the game, scoring on the sixth shot at 1:27.  They did not let up.  The Blackhawks scored less than two minutes later and made it 3-0 before ten minutes had elapsed.  By the time the first period was over, it was 4-0, Chicago.  Kolzig finished the night allowing five goals on 42 shots as Chicago blanked the Caps, 5-0.

It would be Kolzig's last start in the regular season.  Huet took over and performed admirably, going 6-0-1 to end the regular season, and the Caps won the Eastern Conference title going away, their 51-22-9 record being seven points ahead of the Montreal Canadiens.  On the offensive side of the ledger, Alex Ovechkin finished the season with a league-leading 69 goals, an NHL record for left wingers, and 118 points.  Sidney Crosby  finished with 88 assists and 121 points to lead the league in both categories.  But now it was time for the second season.

Round 1 - Grinding It Out

The Capitals drew the Boston Bruins in Round 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.  The teams split their four-game regular season series, three of the games being of the low scoring variety, the winning team scoring only two goals (one of those being in a shootout win by the Caps).  The fourth game was a blowout of considerable proportion, the Caps hanging ten on the Bruins in a 10-2 win on March 3rd.

For the Capitals, Cristobal Huet got the call in goal for Game 1; for the Bruins it was Tim Thomas.  Both netminders were on top of their games in the opening contest, each holding the other side scoreless through two periods.  It would be Huet who would crack, though, allowing a goal by Marco Sturm 11 minutes into the third period.  It was enough for Thomas, who stopped all 32 shots he faced to win Game 1, 1-0, and steal home ice advantage for the Bruins.  It was only the second time all season that the Caps were shut out on home ice.

Thomas made it 2-for-2 in Game 2, when he stopped 28 of 29 shots in a 2-1 Boston win, putting the Capitals in a deep hole.  It made for some soul searching among the Capitals and their coaching staff.  What they came up with for Game 3 was a shuffling of the forward lines.  Ovechkin and Crosby were broken up, Nicklas Backstrom assigned to Ovechkin and Crosby assigned to Alexander Semin.  The moves had an effect, but perhaps not what the coaches intended.  Early in the first period of Game 3 in Boston the Capitals managed two-thirds of a line change with Crosby and Semin going in.  However, they could not get Eric Fehr off in favor of Tomas Fleischmann.  It was a blessing in disguise.  Crosby and Fehr hooked up on a give-and-go with Fehr finishing the play and giving the Caps a 1-0 lead.  The Backstrom-Ovechkin pair worked well, too, hooking up on an Ovechkin goal in the last minute of the period.  It was all that Huet needed, as he stopped 24 of 25 shots, and the Caps added an empty net goal for a 3-1 win to halve the Bruins' lead in the series.

What worked once worked twice.  In Game 4, Backstrom and Ovechkin each recorded a goal and an assist.  Crosby had two assists and once more hooked up with Fehr on a goal as the Caps won, 4-1.  It was a momentum changer.  The Caps scored early and late in Game 5, and Huet was good when he had to be in a 5-2 win.  Washington closed it out in Game 6 when Fehr scored the game-winner mid-way through the third period, and the Caps added an empty netter to win, 4-2, clinching the series in six games.

Round 2 - Gentlemen, Start Your Engines

The Capitals drew the Ottawa Senators in the Eastern Conference semi-finals, pitting the top two scoring teams in the league against one another.  The difference was that the Senators had difficulty at times keeping opponents off the scoreboard, finishing 24th in the league in scoring defense.  In Game 1, it showed.  Everyone the Caps needed to have perform did just that.  Ovechkin got the Caps off and running with a goal three minutes into the game.  Crosby finished with three points on a goal and two assists.  Backstrom had a pair of assists.  And there was Eric Fehr with another goal, his fourth of the playoffs, capping off what would be a 5-1 win for the Caps.

Ottawa had no answer for the Caps in Game 2, either.  This time the damage was done by the undercard on the roster.  Boyd Gordon and Brooks Laich scored in the first period, Matt Bradley and Milan Jurcina in the third.  Alexander Semin added an empty netter, and the Caps had a 2-0 lead in games off a 5-2 win, heading to Ottawa for Games 3 and 4.

Game 3 started well enough for the Caps, scoring first for the third straight game in the series when Mike Green converted on a power play mid-way through the first period.  Ottawa tied the game late in the period and took a lead in the first minute of the second period on goals by Antoine Vermette and Mike Fisher.  It got worse for the Caps later in the period when Cristobal Huet tried to make a save on a rebound shot from Dany Heatley off a Wade Redden drive.  Heatley's shot skidded past Huet's left pad, and Huet, whose skate seem to catch trying to lunge across the crease, was slow to get up after the score.  Unable to shake off the injury, he was replaced by Olaf Kolzig in goal.  Kolzig did his job, stopping all 14 shots he faced, but the Caps could only get one goal back, a power play goal by Nicklas Backstrom.  The 3-2 Senators win halved the Caps advantage heading into Game 4.

The Caps received some bad news on their day off between Games 3 and 4.  Cristobal Huet was diagnosed with a sprained knee that would keep him out of the rest of the Ottawa series and perhaps the Eastern Conference finals, should the Caps advance that far.  With that news, the Caps needed a lift.  It might have come from the return of Kolzig in net.  Instead, it came in the form of Eric Fehr, whose hat trick put the Senators on the brink of elimination in a 6-3 Caps win.

The Caps pushed Ottawa over the brink in Game 5.  Despite a raft of penalties taken that gave the Senators eight power plays, the Caps rode Kolzig's 38 saves and goals by Alexander Semin and Viktor Kozlov to a 2-1 win at Verizon Center.  The win earned the Caps their third trip to the Eastern Conference finals in team history, their first since their Stanley Cup run in 1998.  Their opponent would be the team that finished second to the Caps in the regular season, the Montreal Canadiens.

Round 3 - Class is in Session

The Canadiens posed an interesting challenge for the Capitals.  Just one season earlier, their rookie goaltender, Carey Price, was tending goal for the Hamilton Bulldogs in the AHL.  There, Price backstopped the Bulldogs to a Calder Cup championship, defeating the Hershey Bears in the process and many of the players he would face in the conference final: Tomas Fleischmann, Mike Green, David Steckel, and Jeff Schultz among them.  That Bears team did not have Alex Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby, though, and the experience of facing them for the first time in the playoffs was a memorable, if unpleasant lesson for Price.

Crosby scored in the game's second minute, and Ovechkin scored twice in the first frame to chase Price and give the Caps a 3-0 lead at the first intermission.  When Semin scored early in the second period on relief goalie Jaroslav Halak, the competitive portion of Game 1 was all but over.  The Caps coasted to a 5-1 win.

Game 2 was almost a replay start for the Capitals from Game 1.  This time it was Alex Ovechkin kicking off the scoring on the game's first shot on Carey Price.  When Mike Green scored just over two minutes later, Montreal coach Guy Carbonneau wasted no time in trying to change the momentum with a goalie change.  Jaroslav Halak relieved Price once more.  The change at least stopped the bleeding for the visitors, and when the Canadiens scored late in the first period, the momentum shifted to their side of the ice.

A goal by Alex Kovalev tied things up in the second period.  The third period was dominated by the goaltenders, Kolzig for the Capitals and Halak for Montreal.  Neither goalie would yield, and the game went to overtime.  Eight minutes into the extra session a Roman Hamrlik drive ricocheted off the skate of defenseman Shaone Morrisonn and past Kolzig to give the Canadiens a 3-2 win and a split in Washington as the teams headed to Montreal.

If a word could describe Games 3 and 4 for the Capitals, it would be frustration.  Guy Carbonneau decided to open Game 3 with Jaroslav Halak in goal, and the change agreed with the Canadiens.  Halak stopped all but two of the 76 shots he faced in the two games, 48 of them in Game 4, as the Canadiens took both games, winning Game 3 by a 2-1 score and Game 4 by a 3-1 margin.  The losses put the Caps in a 3-1 hole as the teams resumed the series in Washington for Game 5.

The Caps had not won a seven-game series since coming back from such a deficit in 2008 against the Philadelphia Flyers.  Five times since then the Caps faced a 1-3 deficit, five times they lost the series.  Halak continued to thwart the Capitals to open Game 5, turning away all ten shots he faced in the first period.  The frustration continued in the second period when the Capitals failed to convert a 90 second 5-on-3 power play.  It almost got worse for the Capitals when the second of the penalties expired, and Andrei Markov found Tom Kostopoulos coming out of the penalty box for a breakaway.  Kostopoulos skated in and tried to deke Kolzig to the ice, but Kolzig held his ground and smothered a five-hole attempt.

The save turned the momentum to the Capitals' side of the ice, but ramping up the shot totals on Halak was not accompanied by finding the back of the net.  The teams went to the third period scoreless, but the scoreless tie lasted just 30 seconds into the final frame.  Eric Fehr converted a cross-ice feed from Sidney Crosby for his eighth goal of the playoffs.  Alex Ovechkin added a goal three minutes later, and David Steckel added an empty netter.  At the other end, Kolzig completed the shutout as the Caps extended the series with a 3-0 win.

In Game 6 at Bell Centre the teams fought a counterpuncher's fight - low shot totals and positional play dominating the first period.  The teams combined for just seven shots on goal through the first 20 minutes.  Action picked up in the second period, but neither team could light the lamp.  As the period was winding down Alexander Semin was sent off for a hooking penalty, and the Canadiens converted the power play with just a dozen seconds left in the period, taking a 1-0 lead to the locker room after 40 minutes.

The Canadiens opened the third period choosing to pack in their defense and force the Caps to shoot from the outside.  The strategy seemed to be working.  Shots were limited to the outside or above the faceoff dots, and what few shots got through were stopped by Halak and swept away by a defense focused on guarding the crease area.  The Caps enjoyed a huge advantage in shot attempts, but could manage only to keep pace with the Canadiens' four shots on goal over the first ten minutes of the period.

It was with six minutes left that the crack finally appeared in the Canadiens' defense after the Caps went on a power play.  A shot by Alex Ovechkin from the top of the left wing circle caught the stick of Montreal defenseman Mike Komisarek and skittered to the left of Halak.  From the goal line extended, Crosby collected the loose puck and roofed a wrist shot from a severe angle over Halak's left shoulder on the short side to tie the game.

For the second time in the series, the teams went to overtime.  And as so often happens, a missed chance at one end leads to one at the other.  Two minutes into the overtime a mix-up in coverages in the defensive end left Tomas Plekanec all alone in front of Kolzig with the game and the series on his stick.  Plekanec snapped a shot looking for the top corner over Kolzig's right shoulder, and the shot beat Kolzig cleanly.  Too cleanly.  The puck hit the crossbar and caromed out where Shaone Morrisonn picked it up and turned up ice.  He fed it ahead to Sidney Crosby heading down the right wing.  Crosby skated over the Canadiens blue line and curled off, looking for a trailer.  He passed on Eric Fehr heading down the middle and shadowed by Roman Hamrlik.  What Crosby found was Alex Ovechkin heading into the offensive zone on the far side.  With Fehr mixing it up with Hamrlik in front of Halak, Ovechkin fired a wrist shot.  The puck sailed past Halak's blocker and into the short side of the net to give the Caps a 2-1 win to send the teams back to Washington one more time for a deciding Game 7.

Or not.  Halak and the Canadiens protested vehemently, arguing interference by Fehr with Halak's ability to defend the shot.  The referee disagreed, to the intense displeasure of the Bell Centre faithful, and it left the Caps a happy bunch as they skated off with new found life in a series now tied at three games apiece.

Teams that reach a Stanley Cup final often find themselves facing adversity in an earlier round of the tournament.  The Caps faced theirs, coming back from 1-3 down in games to tie the series, but it was time to cash in and finish the job.  This had been a sad theme in Capitals history, the inability to finish. Washington was 1-4 in Game 7's in team history, their only win coming in 1988 against the Philadelphia Flyers on an overtime goal by Dale Hunter.  The Caps would need no such theatrics in this one.  After a scoreless first period in which Kolzig turned away all 14 shots he faced, the Caps torched Halak for four goals on nine shots in less than ten minutes, chasing him in favor of Carey Price.  The rest of the night was for the fans to indulge in cheering for every check, every save, and each of the other three goals the Caps recorded at Price's expense.  Kolzig finished with a 27-save shutout, the Caps had a 7-0 win, and all that was left was one more series, a Stanley Cup final.

But there, the Detroit Red Wings were waiting, a team that blew through the Western Conference playoff rounds with a 12-4 record, a team that was making its fifth trip to the Stanley Cup finals in a span of 13 seasons, having won three of their previous four appearances, one of them at the Capitals' expense in 1998.  A team of deep talent and experience in a Stanley Cup finals setting was going to be met by a team that just three seasons earlier lost 46 games and was preparing to cast their lot with a draft lottery.  The Caps rode a lot of luck and a lot of skill to reach this point, and it's there that the next installment will begin.