Dialed In for the Long Stretch
A Capitals story that shamed most hockey fairy tales, a dream that seemed almost too silly to speak for months, came true in the pandemonium of Verizon Center last night. A team that was the worst in the NHL on Thanksgiving day, but climbed and clawed for months, finally reached the playoffs on the last day of the season with a 3-1 victory over Florida.
For 134 days, the Capitals fought to have their playoff destiny in their hands. For months, they slowly crept up the standings until finally this Washington team found itself in a place it had imagined for so long yet always wondered if it could actually reach. On the 135th day, before a sellout "red-out" crowd of jubilant hysterics, what once seemed the stuff of fiction suddenly became the reality of the moment: Win and you're in, lose and you're out. Convincingly, decisively, they won.
"We just saw history. To push that hard for that long when you had to keep winning, week after week, that's the greatest thing I've ever been around in hockey," said Capitals General Manager George McPhee, shaking his head just moments after the Capitals' 11th win in 12 games as Verizon Center shook with cheers.
"We'd win and feel good for an hour. Then we'd look up and we hadn't gained any ground. We were still alive, but not in. It was like that for I don't know how many weeks," said McPhee, who fired coach Glen Hanlon, who started the season 6-14-1 and hired minor league coach Bruce Boudreau on Thanksgiving, then traded for goalie Cristobal Huet, brainy center Sergei Fedorov and left wing Matt Cooke before the deadline.
"When Bruce arrived, nobody believe in us -- a done team, no future. But he believed," said Alex Ovechkin, who will now almost certainly be voted most valuable player after his 65 goals have translated into team success. "Now, everybody knows we are a very good team. My dream was to go to the playoffs. Right now, we're there. But it's only one step. We don't have to stop. It's only the beginning for this team."
Certainly, the Phone Booth faithful have caught the playoff fever for more than two months. With four minutes left to play, they began booming, "M-V-P" for Ovechkin. A minute later, they took up the chant for Boudreau, bellowing "Bouds" over and over. To his credit, Boudreau had no clue at first that the cheers were for him, reacting as though he had missed some crucial action on the ice which the crowd had seen. Never did he crack a smile, wave or show that his heart was swelled with pride after 33 pro years, most of them in bush league towns.
Is Boudreau basking in the glory? Hardly. "I just stay in the house," he said afterward. "If I see myself on TV, I turn it off. Like a lot of guys, I wish I could lose 30 pounds. Give the credit to the players. I'm happy to be here. That's my reward." His reward should also be in the words of his players who appreciate the way he allowed the team to open its playing style, be more aggressive and creative, and make the most of Ovechkin's vast ability.
"First of all, Bruce is a great guy," grinned the gap-toothed Ovechkin.
Just as important, with so much ground to make up and so many disappointments, so many temporary missteps along the way, Boudreau has kept his team's focus narrow -- one game at a time or even one shift on the ice.
"Keep simple things simple and go from there," said Fedorov, who was the best player on the ice in this clinching game, scoring a slap-shot goal but also checking and passing as if he were 10 years younger than his age of 38. "We took one game at a time, otherwise, we would have been thinking about everything that all the other teams might be doing. Then you don't have any energy left. Bruce kept us focused. When a team gets into good habits, everybody wants to keep playing exactly that way. It becomes addictive."
Even Boudreau admitted he had never seen a team at any level of hockey maintain a playoff push for such an incredible length of time, much less finish that run with an 11-1 streak when nothing less would suffice.
"I kept telling tem, 'Don't add pressure by figuring it all out. Just keep winning,' " Boudreau said. "But, no, I've never seen anything like this -- not this long at the end of the year."