BY JESSIE LEIMAN
For those still recovering from a recent disappointing season by the nearby Washington Redskins, and are still bothering to pay attention to one of the worst seasons in Washington Wizards history, you needn’t look any further than the Washington Capitals.
After being in last place for the beginning of the year and the joke of the league, 2007-08 Coach of the Year Bruce Boudreau has taken this team to first place in the Southeast Division in the National Hockey League.
After being the worst team in what is sometimes called the “South-least Division,” it was difficult for fans to think that they had anything at all to look forward to. In November 2007, Capitals coach Glen Hanlon was fired and the Capitals scrambled to find a suitable replacement. To add to the matter, it had to be someone that did not mind taking over one of the worst train wrecks in the league.
Enter Boudreau. After being the coach of the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears, a minor league affiliate of the Capitals, Boudreau stepped in a made history. After compiling a 37–17–7 record in his first year with a team that was 6–14–1 when he inherited it, Boudreau won the NHL’s Coach of the Year award after only coaching only 74 percent of team’s game.
Boudreau also led the team to the playoffs for the first time in five years. Unfortunately, the Caps lost in seven games to the Philadelphia Flyers
The Capitals have continued their success from last year, with a current 13-point lead in their division, almost ensuring them of a division championship for the second year in a row.
With just over half of the regular season gone, the team has enjoyed more sell-out games at the Verizon Center for the 2008-2009 season than it did during the entirety of last season. In no small part thanks to its fan following, the Washington hockey team is virtually unbeatable at home, with a 21-3-1 record within the walls of what the Capitals-faithful fondly call “the Phone Booth.” Only the San Jose Sharks have a better home record at 23-2-2. The Caps overall record of 32-15-4, this team had a better halfway mark than any team in the Washington franchise’s history.
While the team as a whole has clearly prospered, many of the Caps’ individual players have enjoyed personal successes as a result of the team’s new coaching. Players who were virtually unknown a few years ago are now active and acknowledged contributors to the team’s offense, which was once known only as “Alexander Ovechkin.”
The most notable are Alexander Semin, whose breakout at the beginning of this season was so huge that many were wondering if maybe it was he, and not Ovechkin, who was truly Alex the Great. Tomas Fleischmann, in 51 games this season, has scored 15 goals. In all 82 games last season, he scored just 10.
The game of every player on the team has improved, from Mike Green’s league defensemen-leading 15 goals, to Tom Poti’s penalty-kill effectiveness, to backup goalie Brent Johnson’s incredible bid for the number one goalie position.
But, the excitement that surrounds the Capitals stems not just from its antics during contests, but also from the structure of the franchise and its management.
Earlier in the season, goalie Jose Theodore was injured during a morning practice before a game. The Hershey Bears’ goalie, Simeon Varlamov, had to be called up to Washington to back up Brent Johnson that night, just in case he should be injured. But, when the Caps realized Varlamov’s trip would take longer than the time the team had before the game, General Manager George Mcphee was in a big predicament.
What did McPhee do? He turned to the Capitals’ web producer, Brett Leonhardt, who had played goalie in college, and signed him to an amateur contract for the next few hours. Leonhardt warmed up with the team and was an instant D.C. celebrity.
However, the coaching staff tried to spice up the season for its players as well. Rather than having a regular practice last week, coach Boudreau scheduled a mini-Winter Classic for the team. Instead of playing on the Caps home ice, the team enjoyed playing on the outdoor rink at the Chevy Chase Country Club instead.
Hundreds of club members showed up to watch as Boudreau played referee. The scrimmage was full of laughing, fun, and jokes by the players, who were glad to not be running monotonous practice drills, a la most other NHL teams.
This is a special team. This is a team whose identity lies not just in its win percentage, but also in its ability to spark something within its fans. Their desire to win seems to be as much for the crowd in the stands as it is for themselves, and the mutuality of that feeling is clear in the red-clad, Caps-happy throngs that now mob D.C.
The Capitals convey a sense that nothing is too big to overcome, and nothing is as important as playing for the love of the game. With this team, anything is possible.