By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 7, 2008
When the Washington Capitals make their return to the NHL playoffs this week, they will open against the team they defeated in Coach Bruce Boudreau's first game behind the bench Nov. 23, the day their historic comeback from last place began.
The Southeast Division champion Capitals will host the Philadelphia Flyers on Friday and Sunday in Games 1 and 2 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals at Verizon Center. The Capitals and Flyers split four regular season meetings, with each club winning on the road.
Boudreau's NHL coaching debut came the day after Thanksgiving at Wachovia Center, where Capitals won, 4-3, on a goal in overtime by rookie Nicklas Backstrom. In the four and a half months since that victory, Boudreau, a coach of the year hopeful, guided the team to a 37-17-7 record, including seven straight victories to close the regular season, and the Capitals ascended from last place to division champion for the first time since winning back-to-back titles in 2000 and 2001.
Also yesterday, Capitals all-star left wing Alex Ovechkin clinched the Art Ross and Maurice Richard trophies, awarded to the NHL's leader in points and goals, respectively. Ovechkin, who finished with 65 goals (the league's highest season total in 12 years) and 112 points, also is widely considered a favorite to win the Hart Trophy as league MVP. Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins finished second to Ovechkin in points with 106 and Ilya Kovachuk of the Atlanta Thrashers was runner-up in goals with 52.
Ovechkin is the first Capital and first Russian to win the Art Ross and second Capital to lead the league in goals (Peter Bondra had 34 in the lockout shortened 1994-95 season and shared the lead with 52 in 1997-98). He also would become the first Washington player to win the Hart. But winning major awards is nothing new for Ovechkin, who in 2005-06 became the franchise's first rookie of the year.
According to the schedule released last night, Games 1-6 will be broadcast in the United States and Canada, proof of Ovechkin's appeal.
Although Ovechkin's record-breaking season and his quest for his first trip to the playoffs has been a focal point of the media, Boudreau was careful to praise the whole team's efforts after Saturday night's division-clinching 3-1 victory over the Panthers. Until Boudreau's Capitals, no team had ever come back from 14 or 15th place at the season's midpoint and made the playoffs.
"As much as we like to talk about Alex, there's an awful lot of other guys who put forth to make this thing happen," Boudreau said after Saturday's game. "We can go down the list, from the blocked shots of Brooks Laich in the third period, the determination of the defense, everybody doing their job. There's a good team that wants to win and Alex is a big part of it, but he's not the only part of it."
Saturday's triumph over the Panthers was a perfect example as Ovechkin played well but finished without a point. The offense was instead supplied by Tomas Fleischmann, Sergei Fedorov and Alexander Semin.
The Capitals did not practice yesterday and had to wait until 5:30 p.m. to find out that they'll be facing the Flyers, who clinched the No. 6 seed with a 2-0 win over the Penguins, who opted to rest reigning MVP Sidney Crosby and his tender right ankle. The Penguins' loss handed the conference title to Montreal.
The Washington-Philadelphia matchup will mark the fourth time the old Patrick Division rivals have met in the postseason, but first time since the 1988-89 season. Washington won two of the three series.
Three of teams' four meetings in the regular season were decided by one goal; the other was decided by two.
The Flyers, who finished with the NHL's worst record a year ago, are a physical team with balanced scoring and a hot goalie. They closed out the regular season by winning seven of nine games, including back-to-back shutouts by goaltender Martin Biron over New Jersey and Pittsburgh.
Mike Richards led the Flyers in scoring with 28 goals and 75 points and is closely followed by Daniel Briere (31 goals, 72 points) and trade deadline addition Vaclav Prospal (33 goals, 71 points). Briere has missed two games because of a knee injury, but is reportedly aiming to return for Game 1 in Washington.
The Capitals have some injury concerns of their own. Defenseman Jeff Schultz left Saturday's game early in the second period because of an undisclosed injury and did not return, dealing another blow to a banged up blue line that is already without Shaone Morrisonn (week to week, upper body) and Brian Pothier (indefinitely, concussion). Team officials are not commenting on the nature or severity of Schultz's injury other than to say he'll be evaluated today. If he cannot play, they'll be forced to recall a player from Hershey, likely prospect Sami Lepisto or veteran Josef Boumedienne.