Friday, March 28, 2008

Cardiac Caps

I hope you'll forgive a girl for not posting so much lately.

You see, it's been a little bit crazy here in DC. More than a little bit crazy.

...okay, it's been downright insane.

It's that time of year where scoreboard-watching and standings-checking have become part of our daily routine. Sometimes part of our twice or three times daily routine. And if you've been doing that at all in recent weeks you've probably seen a scrappy little team perched just outside the coveted eighth place that just won't die.

That's my boys. Caps fans have had quite a rollercoaster ride this season, going from worst to first and everything in between in search of their first playoff berth since 2003. We've seen old friends depart via the trade route, cagey veterans brought in to shore up holes, and a season by Alex Ovechkin that will go down as one of the greatest in Caps' history - playoffs or not.

Let's hop into our time machine and go back to November 21, 2007. After a promising 3-0 start to the season, the Caps saw their early optimism plummet as they proceeded to win just five games over the next two months, with two four-game losing streaks and one five-game losing streak under their belts.

The day in question, Thanksgiving Eve, was that fifth straight loss. It came at home against a Thrashers team experiencing it's own rejuvenation - and amid chants of "Fire Hanlon" from the few hometown fans who even bothered to come to the rink anymore. It was the darkest of times in a season full of darkness.

And then suddenly, there was light...and it came from the unlikeliest of places. It arrived in the form of a short, chubby, bald man nicknamed "Gabby" who wore bad suits and changed the face of Caps hockey for good. Bruce Boudreau, the Caps' new head coach, wasn't about to let this team and its amazing young talent get lost in the bottom of the standings.

His philosophy? Let them play the way they can play. Let the young guys do their thing, let the offense play offense and let the defense get involved, too. Let's make this game fun to watch again. Let's make it fun to play again.

The change could be seen almost immediately.

Suddenly it was fun to be a Caps fan again. Even when the team lost it no longer felt like the world was ending, like you'd just wasted three hours of your life and part of your soul only to see the Caps lose...again. Sure, there were bumps in the road. Two consecutive wins to kickstart the Boudreau era were followed by three straight losses as players learned the new systems and with them their new roles.

Slowly things fell into place, though, and gradually the Caps began the long, hard climb out of the enormous hole they'd dug for themselves. They put together small strings of wins and minimized the losing streaks, not dropping consecutive losses in regulation until two weeks ago - which they rebounded from by winning seven of their next eight.

A large part of the success is due to the coaching change. Another large part is due to the performance of Alex Ovechkin, whose heroics this season are overshadowed only by the amazing team player and leader he has become.

And then there is a group of misfits following close behind - from young talents only beginning to find their potential like Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green and Brooks Laich, to grizzled veterans with experience, talent and wisdom like Olie Kolzig and Sergei Fedorov, to the hard-working guys who don't get enough credit like Dave Steckel, Matt Bradley and Shaone Morrisonn.

On December 1, the Caps were ranked thirtieth in the league with nine wins, twenty points and a horrific home record. Today they sit two points out of third place, seventh place and eighth place after closing a gap that at one point seemed impossible to close. They have emerged from the pack of teams on the playoff bubble to be the only one with a realistic shot to overtake someone in front of them.

Their fate now is only partly in their hands. Winning all four of their final games won't even guarantee a spot and they'll need some help, especially considering the three teams ahead of them - Philadelphia, Boston and Carolina - all have coveted games in hand.

But to some extent whether they make the playoffs or not is irrelevant. This is a team that struggled through the worst franchise start in over twenty years only to make a legitimate push toward the postseason. Fans are back in the building and even the local media is paying attention to hockey again - a virtual coup in the land of Redskins supremacy and hockey ignorance.

And there seems to be an unspoken agreement among fans, the media, and even the players that missing the playoffs after this run will not be looked at as a disappointment. It will be a building block for next year and many years to come.


Anonymous said...

What a great success story. I'm pushing for you guys to make the playoffs; you deserve it after a comeback like that.

Anonymous said...

I am proud to be a Caps fan!