Sunday, April 06, 2008

Capitals Win Southeast Division Title

My friend Mike had an extra ticket for me to the Caps-Panthers game last night. It was the last regular season game. Win or get the game to over time and the Caps would win the Southeast Division title and complete one of the more amazing comebacks ever in NHL history.

At one point they were the worst team in the NHL. Late November after coach Glen Hanlon was fired and Bruce Boudreau took over, the Caps were already 14 points behind the Carolina Hurricanes for the Southeast Division lead.

The team responded to Boudreau and even though they were still last in the division on December 30th, you could see improvement in the team. One of those players who responded was certain league MVP Alex Ovechkin, who ended up scoring an NHL record 65 goals for left wings. I went to the Caps-Ottawa game to start 2008 with friends and they hammered the Senators 6-3. Nice way to start the new year. The wins kept coming and then there was talk about possibly making the playoffs. "Impossible. Too many teams to climb over" and "No chance, the bad start doomed them" were the replies heard on sports radio and seen in print and message boards. However, the team kept playing hard and didn't give up.

Caps General Manager George McPhee was active at the trade deadline, making trades for additional depth for the stretch run. He acquired goaltender Cristobal Huet from Montreal, center Sergei Federov from Columbus and left wing Matt Cooke from Vancouver. All three would play key roles down the stretch with Huet becoming the number one goalie, Federov (Three time Stanley Cup Champion) providing valuable leadership and Cooke coming through with a couple multiple point games.

After back to back losses to Boston and Pittsburgh on March 8-9, the Caps won 11 of 12. The loss (5-0 in Chicago) came over two weeks ago and it was the Caps last loss of the season. After that loss they ran the table and won seven in a row to close out the season. Let me recap this: December 30, 2007 last place in the division. April 5, 2008 division champions and third seed in the playoffs. Incredible.

So sitting in Section 210 before the game, we were confident but nervous. The Caps started off slow but got the job done thanks to goals from Tomas Fleischmann, Fedorov and Alexander Semin and they got another solid night in goal from Huet. Result: The Caps win 3-1.

So while we were celebrating in the stands and high fiving other fans, the scoreboard flashed Caps Owner Ted Leonsis smiling and waving to the fans and just enjoying the moment. He caught a lot of grief from Caps fans prior to the NHL lockout in 2004 by stripping away the talent on the roster but he believed in rebuilding from the draft and not overspending on free agents. He's been patient through three straight last place finishes in the division. Tonight it was nice to see him enjoy the moment along with us.

Overall, a great time at the good ol' hockey game and to top it off, I was able to get Benjamin an Alex Ovechkin bobblehead that they were giving away prior to the game.

Celebrating Alexander Semin's goal to put the Caps up 3-1.

Here are the final seconds ticking down.

Scoreboard says it all.

My fan of the game. He sat behind us.

This was the Caps first Southeast Division championship since 2001 and first playoff berth since 2003.

The Caps remind me of the 1983 North Carolina State Wolfpack basketball team. That team had to win the ACC tournament to make the NCAA tournament field and that's what they did. Then with momentum on their side, they ran the table in the NCAA tournament becoming unlikely champions. Can the Caps feed off this momentum and win the Stanley Cup? Absolutely! You have the league MVP in Ovechkin, solid goaltending, good veteran leadership and a bunch of young players who understand their role on the team. And throw in a coach happy as hell to be where he is after several years toiling in the minor leagues, well anything is possible and I like the Caps chances.

Caps vs Flyers
Friday, April 11 7 p.m. Philadelphia at Washington
Sunday, April 13 2 p.m. Philadelphia at Washington
Tuesday, April 15 7 p.m. Washington at Philadelphia
Thursday, April 17 7 p.m. Washington at Philadelphia
Saturday, April 19 1 p.m. Philadelphia at Washington
Monday, April 21 TBD Washington at Philadelphia
Tuesday, April 22 TBD Philadelphia at Washington

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