By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
Three weeks have passed since Washington Capitals General Manager George McPhee made three bold moves at the NHL's trade deadline in the hopes of sparking his then-struggling team for the stretch run.
It's worked out better than expected.
The additions of goaltender Cristobal Huet, center Sergei Fedorov and left wing Matt Cooke are a major reason the Capitals have gone 7-3 since Feb. 26 and pulled within two points of eighth place in the Eastern Conference and a berth in the postseason. They open a six-game road trip tonight in Nashville with nine contests remaining.
"We had played well from Thanksgiving until the all-star break," McPhee said yesterday. "But we were just .500 after that. We needed to be better to make the playoffs and we thought we had to add some players. Now we're hoping they will result in us making the playoffs."
Huet is 3-2-0 with a 1.68 goals against average and .940 save percentage as he splits time with incumbent starter Olie Kolzig. Fedorov, meanwhile, has a goal, four assists and has won 63.3 percent of his faceoffs. Cooke has a pair of goals and three assists.
The trio's contributions were hard to overlook over the weekend. Cooke helped clinch Friday's 4-1 victory over Atlanta with an assist and a short-handed goal, the team's first in nearly four months. Huet and Fedorov starred in Sunday's 2-1 shootout win over Boston. Huet finished with 39 saves, including 19 in the third period and overtime, plus another in penalty shots. Fedorov netted Washington's goal in regulation, skated 22 minutes 48 seconds (second most among forwards behind Alex Ovechkin) and won 12 of his 20 draws.
Trading for "Huet was the easiest decision because he played really well for a few years," McPhee said. "It's worked out the way we had hoped. He's playing well and Olie is better rested and playing really well, too.
"We couldn't be more impressed with how [Fedorov has] handled this situation," he added. "How great he's been with our young players, and how well he's played. And Cooke is playing better than he played in Vancouver."
The Capitals' push for the playoffs resumes on the road tonight against Jason Arnott (25 goals, 42 assists) and the Predators, who, like the Capitals, are hoping to sneak into the postseason.
The trip continues to Chicago and Atlanta before the Capitals come home for Easter weekend. Then they return to the road for games at Carolina, Tampa Bay and Florida, as Verizon Center plays host to the NCAA men's basketball tournament and the circus.
"You would hope the major tenants would get more support than this," McPhee said. "You have to look after your teams."
Huet is expected to start in goal tonight, while Kolzig will likely get the nod against the Blackhawks.
Huet's adjustment has been almost seamless, since he didn't need to learn a system or jell with unfamiliar linemates. As Coach Bruce Boudreau put it: "He just has to stop the puck."
Fedorov, 38, is on the downside of a spectacular career, but Boudreau's up-tempo system seems to have reinvigorated him. He also seems to relish being the elder statesman in a locker room filled with up-and-coming stars such as Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom.
Cooke's integration into the lineup took longer than anticipated, mostly because he's had to adapt to a style of play that's much more aggressive than the conservative approach employed in Vancouver. But he's comfortable now, to the point where he's speaking up in the locker room.
"It definitely makes it easier to speak in the room and be influential when you're chipping in offensively," Cooke, who lives in the same Arlington hotel as Huet and often carpools or dines with his new teammate.
All three of the new additions are unrestricted free agents at season's end, and it's unclear which, if any, will be back next season. But for now, they've delivered exactly what the Capitals needed.
"You can take players who are good individuals and it doesn't work," Boudreau said. "You never know. [But] these were three very good acquisitions."