By Kate Crowder
Well, Caps fans, it may have taken us a while to get back here – and there have been quite a few ups and downs along the way – but after 82 games of regular-season play, we have finally made it back to the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s take a step back and review the key games in this year’s season en route to the top of the Eastern Conference and to another Southeast Division crown.
-Oct. 8, 2010 vs. ATL and Oct. 9, 2010 vs. NJD – A Two-Faced Season Opener
When the Capitals traveled to Atlanta to face the Thrashers for their 2010-11 season opener, fans and media types alike were expecting to see last year’s high-flying, high-scoring Capitals come bursting out on to the ice and to give the Thrashers (although an admittedly much-improved team) a thrashing of their own. But when the Caps laid an egg, falling 4-2 after a bizarre start to the contest that saw Thrashers’ goalie Ondrej Pavelec collapse on the ice, folks around the league were quick to point fingers at the Capitals’ flaws. But less than 24 hours later, back within the familiar confines of Verizon Center, the Capitals responded with a dominating, 7-2 victory against the New Jersey Devils that had most fans breathing a sigh of relief. With seven goals – including two from Alex Ovechkin, one short-handed tally off the stick of Brooks Laich and a power play goal from Eric Fehr – the high-scoring, dynamic Capitals from last year’s Presidents’ Trophy season seemed to be back in business.
-Oct. 30 – Nov. 11, 2010 – Gone Streaking
Talk about some early season momentum. After handing the Calgary Flames a 7-2 loss on Oct. 30, 2010, the Capitals went on to earn five more consecutive wins, authoring a six-game winning streak before falling to the Buffalo Sabres, 3-2, in overtime on Nov. 13. During the six-game streak, the Capitals not only gained precious points that propelled them to top of the Eastern Conference standings, but they scored 31 goals (while surrendering only 17), including seven from enigmatic winger, Alexander Semin. And when Semin notched three of those in the Caps’ 6-3 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Nov. 11 – his second hat trick (second of four) this season – Caps fans everywhere were hoping that this “Good Sasha” was here to stay.
-Nov. 19, 2010 vs. ATL and Nov. 22, 2010 vs. NJD – Seeing Double
As good as this team was during their six-game winning streak, the Caps also served up two horrendous games in late November, falling to both the Atlanta Thrashers (again) and the New Jersey Devils (really?) by a score of 5-0 only a mere two days apart. Lack of focus and hard work (with the notable exception of John Carlson who played heroically in front of a hometown crowd at the Prudential Center) left these Caps staring at their first two goose eggs of the 2010-11 season, a stat that would balloon (embarrassingly) to 11 before it was all said and done. Fans and media began crying out for change, demanding that the excuses of an unfocused, immature and youthful core had run their course, and head coach Bruce Boudreau seemed to agree. He skated his team hard following the loss to the Devils, and the Capitals responded with a well-earned win against the Carolina Hurricanes on Nov. 24.
-Dec. 12, 2010 vs. NYR – From Bad, to Worse
The Caps’ eight-game losing streak (Dec. 2 – Dec. 18, 2010) now seems like a distant memory, but as the year came to a close in Washington, the Capitals’ well-publicized and often-criticized struggles to get back into the win column were inescapable. The team looked uninspired and tired, and all the woes – documented by HBO – came to a head at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 12, 2010. The Capitals looked unorganized and just plain awful in a 7-0 thrashing at the hand of the New York Rangers, now our first round playoff match-up. Even an Alex Ovechkin fight failed to inspire the team, although the Captain was right for making an example of himself and showing some emotion. And again, thanks to HBO, we all know how the coaching staff felt about that game. During their eight-game winless streak, the Caps only managed to score nine goals – and just a lowly three on the power play – and were shutout twice (once by the Florida Panthers no less). Morale was low, and the media in Washington and around the NHL were calling for Boudreau’s head, just as locker room leadership came under serious fire.
-Dec. 19, 2010 vs. OTT – Beat Dat Beat Up
Never have the sounds of Pauly D been so welcome. After 17 winless days, the Capitals finally broke through to earn a 3-2 victory against the Ottawa Senators on Dec. 19, 2010. And although they fell into an early two-goal hole that had most people saying “here we go again (eye roll)”, the Capitals willed their way to a ‘W’ and celebrated in style in the visitor’s locker room, which again, thanks to HBO, was all captured on film. Who can ever forget the image of John Carlson, Matt Bradley and Brooks Laich fist-pumping to Pauly D’s “Beat Dat Beat Up” (an instant classic, no; a victory anthem, possibly)? And perhaps the ironic element of this game was that it was not the big stars that lifted the Capitals out of their doldrums. Now, to diminish the overall impact of Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green and their importance to the team is just ridiculous. Rather, it was Mathieu Perreault (remember him?) who scored the game-winning, power play goal. The Capitals found their winning ways again not because of their flashy skill, or their ability to demoralize goaltenders with barrages of pucks to the net. Instead, it was a willingness to hard work, mixed with a rediscovery in a belief in themselves. And that’s a lesson that should be carried into the playoffs. That, and they shouldn’t let the regular-season series with the Rangers get into their collective heads.
-Dec. 28 vs. MTL – La Vengeance! Ou la vengeance?
Having put an eight-game winless streak behind them, and with the buzz of the Winter Classic ramping up, the Capitals and their HBO cameras welcomed the Montreal Canadiens back to Verizon Center on Dec. 28, in what would be the two team’s first showdown since the Habs ousted the Capitals from the Stanley Cup playoffs in April of 2010. And although the Capitals’ kryptonite – Jaroslav Halak – was long gone, emotions understandably ran high as the two teams took to the ice. The Capitals managed to score just three goals in their last three appearances against the Canadiens, but on Dec. 19, they proved they had not lost their scoring touch, as the Caps put up a three-spot to shutout the Canadiens (with Varlamov in net) in front of a vengeful Verizon Center crowd. The game, while it perhaps failed to live up to its rip-roaring expectations, seemed to provide a sense of justice for Caps fans in attendance, even if it failed to assuage the Caps’ disappointment with their first round exit last April.
-Jan. 1 vs. PIT – A Classic Showdown
Picture the scene: you’re in Pittsburgh. It’s 50 degrees although the temperature will drop dramatically as that lovely Pittsburgh wind picks up. Your plans have already been delayed seven hours. And, it’s raining, but you don’t care because, by God, you’ve driven four and a half hours to see a hockey game played at Heinz Field and by God you are going to see a hockey game played at Heinz Field. Yep, that would be me on Jan. 1. And what a way to ring in the New Year? In one of the most anticipated games of the year, the Capitals and Penguins renewed their on-ice rivalry for hockey fans all over North America under the bright lights of Heinz Field and amidst a mixture of rain and snow. The Capitals earned two points thanks to a two-goal performance by Eric Fehr and thanks to Semyon Varlamov who was excellent in net, but everyone knew more than two points were at stake here. On one of hockey’s biggest stages, the Capitals proved that they weren’t simply a team of flash and dance – rather, they were a hard-working team that was willing to pay the price, crash the net, and fight the battles along the boards. Plus, a victory over the Penguins, as we all know, counts for more. Relish it.
Jan. 14 vs. VAN – Testing, Testing
For the majority of the regular season, the Vancouver Canucks – arguably – were the best team in the NHL. Not surprisingly, the Canucks lead all teams in points, with 117, earning themselves the Presidents’ Trophy and a comfortable 12-point lead on the Western Conference’s next best team, the San Jose Sharks. Led by twin brothers Henrik and Daniel Sedin and their formidable goaltender Roberto Luongo, the Canucks arrived in D.C. to face off with a Caps team that had lost back-to-back games entering Jan. 14. Despite an excellent third period, the Capitals failed to overcome a two-goal deficit, and the league’s best team skated away with a 4-2 victory. The game against the Canucks was a tough dose of medicine for the Caps, who saw Vancouver as a reflection of themselves just a year ago. But the contest also seemed to remind fans – and perhaps the team – how much work the Capitals had to do in order to compete with the league’s top squad.
Feb. 4 vs. TBL – Southeast Showdown
From the start of 2010-11 NHL season, it was clear that the Capitals would not be able to run away with the Southeast Division, much as they did last year. Both the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Atlanta Thrashers had made significant improvements to their hockey clubs during the offseason, and heading into the Feb. 4 match-up with the Lightning, the boys from Tampa Bay sat five points ahead of the Capitals. To prevent Tampa Bay’s lead from ballooning to seven points, Boudreau gave his team some homework, and he used two days of practice to create a focused game plan to defeat the Lightning. It worked. After being shutout by the Lightning’s netminder, Dwayne Rolson, in their last two appearances at St. Pete Times Forum, on Feb. 4, the Capitals combined for five goals, winning the contest 5-2. Nicklas Backstrom netted two goals, while Ovechkin, Brooks Laich and Jason Chimera added the additional tallies to help narrow the points gap between the two Southeast Division teams. And while it would be a few more weeks before the Capitals would eventually clinch the division, this game seemed to revive the team’s faith that they could move ahead of the Lightning to defend their division crown.
Feb. 25 vs. NYR – The Final Straw
Another game against the Rangers, and another disastrous outcome. Let’s hope we’ve worked all the kinks out against this team now, OK? After the Capitals fell yet again to the Rangers, this time by the final score of 6-0, Boudreau called it the “worse home loss that [he] had been associated with [in Washington]”. Both Boudreau and the team knew that their fans deserved better, and the crowd at Verizon Center showed their displeasure with boos throughout the game. The Capitals could not have looked further from the Stanley Cup contender that they are today than on that February night. But the team did not just lose the game – having already missed six games after a Brooks Oprik shot deflected off his ear, Mike Green was forced to leave the game yet again after his head hit the ice upon colliding with Derek Stepan. Green would not return to the game, nor would he return for the rest of the regular season. Caps fans everywhere were calling for change (again), and demanding that General Manager George McPhee make the necessary changes at the now fast approaching trade deadline, lest suffer the consequences of yet another failed Stanley Cup playoff appearance…if they made it at all.
Mar. 1 vs. NYI – A Return to Form
The Washington Capitals made one of the biggest splashes at the trade deadline when they acquired Jason Arnott from the New Jersey Devils and Dennis Wideman from the Florida Panthers. The addition of Arnott, Wideman, as well as Marco Strum who was picked up off of waivers just days earlier, seemed to make an instant impact, as the Capitals looked lively and energetic in a home ice overtime win against the Islanders on Mar. 1, their first game after McPhee worked his GM magic at the deadline. Wideman’s presence on the power play was noticeable from the start, and Arnott clearly left an impression on the team’s young core from the first time he set foot in the Washington locker room. And while the 2-1 overtime win earned the Capitals the two-points they needed to continue their climb to the top of the Eastern Conference standings, it was the amazing reinvigoration of Alex Ovechkin (who scored the beautiful overtime game-winner that night) that I believe is the biggest take away from this game. As the teams’ philosophy and style of play has changed, so too has Ovechkin’s game. His personal numbers, while they would seem to show on paper that he’s had one of his least productive years as a pro hockey player, a deeper examination of those numbers in context would show that the Captain has become a more solid team player that uses his skill in support of his teammates (Ovechkin has more assists than points this year – 53 assists, to 32 goals). Granted, Ovechkin still led the Capitals in goals (32), assists (53) and points (85), and he has more game-winners than anyone else on the team (11; also tied for first in the league with Anaheim’s Corey Perry), but there’s been a definite shift in his game that would seem to show that he is more focused on the end goal than ever before. But luckily for us, he’s not without his flashes of brilliance and personality – just ask the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Mar. 9 vs. EDM – Domination
Just what the doctor ordered for the Capitals. Having won five of their last six games, and authoring a 4-0-0 record since the trade deadline, the Capitals welcomed the struggling Edmonton Oilers to D.C. on Mar. 9 for what would spiral into a good, old-fashioned rout. Washington put up a five spot on Edmonton goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, while Braden Holtby earned his first shutout of the 2010-11 season. The Capitals dominated this game from start to finish, but even considering the weaknesses of the opponent, Washington’s 5-0 win went a long way in cementing the confidence of this new and improved, playoff-bound lineup. Moreover, with a two-goal performance from both Fehr and Ovechkin, and with an added insurance marker from Semin, the Capitals seemed to be heating up at just the right time. Mostly though, this game sticks out in my memory because my brother spent most of the evening trying to get his “hilarious” text messages about Khabibulin up on the jumbotron.
On a personal note, I would like to add that my experience of this Capitals’ season was unlike any other I have ever had. From September until just before Christmas, I served at the Caps’ PR intern, working with Nate Ewell, Sergey Kocharov and Kelly Murray, to learn the ins and outs of sports PR at the highest level. From handling the credentialing system for home games, working on game programs, and adjusting and readjusting press box seating charts to early mornings with Kelly, the Clips email, babysitting copiers, postgame notes with Sergey and a much needed confidence boast from Mike Knuble and Nate, I probably absorbed more in those four months than I did during my entire undergraduate experience. Just wanted to say thanks again to Nate, Sergey and Kelly, as well as to everyone else in the Capitals organization, especially to George McPhee and Ted Leonsis, for making me feel so welcome and very much a part of the team. Go Caps.
What were your favorite games of the 2010-11 season? Tweet me with your thoughts! @katec0223