Photo credit: Toni L. Sandys of the Washington Post
Editor’s note: To get you properly revved up for the season, each member of the RMNB crew will take a longing look back at some of our favorite goals from days gone by. You can call it nostalgia or cheap summer content, but it’s really a reminder: WINTER IS COMING.
Seeing a Steve Konowalchuk hat trick live with my dad and brother made me fall in love with hockey. Joe Juneau’s jamshot past Dominik Hasek made me wildly jump up and down as a teenager. But Alex Ovechkin’s first career playoff tally is my all-time favorite NHL goal.
Way back at the beginning of the 2007-08 season, being a Caps fan wasn’t such a fun thing. Sure, the team had young prospects in Alex Ovechkin and Alex Semin. But the organization was coming off three dreadful seasons in which they finished dead-freaking-last in the
powerhouse Southeast Division. Mix in a lockout, watching GMGM trade away all of my favorite players from childhood (Bondra, Oates, Gonchar, etc.) and– just in general– the Jaromir Jagr experiment, and it had been a really awful ten years since the Caps made their first trip to the Stanley Cup Finals.
’07-08 didn’t start off much better. In fact, things got worse. Way worse. In those early months, the team looked completely lost, winning six of their first 21 games. The rebuilding Capitals were actually the worst team in hockey. I had my doubts in Ted Leonsis’s plan.
On Thanksgiving Day, Coach Glen Hanlon was mercilessly fired, and Hershey’s Bruce Boudreau was called up to turn things around. And turn things around he did.
The Capitals overcame injuries to key players like Michael Nylander and Brian Pothier during the year, and won 11 of their final 12 regular season games to edge the Carolina Hurricanes for the Southeast Division title AND the final playoff spot in the East. Mike Green led all NHL defensemen with 18 goals. Alex Ovechkin, who was serenaded by the Verizon Center crowd with M-V-P chants at the end of the year, scored 65 jaw-dropping goals.
I was at about 25 of those home games that year as a fan and the Capitals were truly the NHL’s Cinderella story. I had never experienced one of my favorite teams having the best player in the league. I never thought in a million years that the Capitals would recover and make the playoffs. Verizon Center also became the place to be. As the year went on, the building got louder and louder. It almost seemed like every night you were going to a rock concert or some kind of awesome party where everyone there was your long-lost friend. When tickets went on sale for the first round, I nabbed two upper bowl seats to Game 1 where the Capitals took on the Philadelphia Flyers. I was really excited…
But then things kinda went wrong. The team looked off in the first forty minutes. Most of the players, such as Nicklas Backstrom, had never even experienced an NHL playoff game before. “I was so nervous when I had the puck the first two periods,” said Ovechkin after the game.
The Capitals were staring at a 4-2 deficit coming out for the third period. Things looked awfully bleak. But just like every game towards the end of that year, the Capitals flat-out willed themselves to victory.
Mike Green scored a Bobby Orr-eque goal two minutes into the third. 4-3. Five minutes later, MG52 blasted a rocketship home, this time on the power play past a helpless Mathieu Biron. The tally also resulted in this iconic photograph, too. 4-4.
And then after ten tense minutes of play with the score tied, Alex Ovechkin did his thing:
All I remember from the goal was jumping up and down frantically and bear-hugging my friend Roebuck. I high-fived the two gentlemen in the row below me. They were two friends from Scotland (they were wearing kilts) visiting DC for the weekend, taking in their first ever hockey game. Then someone from the row above fell on top of me, knocking me leg first onto the concrete. It resulted in the worst bruise I’ve ever had. I hugged that guy.
“It is amazing in sports how great moments follow great players,” Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said to reporters after the game. “They just seem to be in the right place at the right time. If you are a star baseball player, it seems like you are coming to bat with the runner on second base. Those are things that happen.
“For his first playoff game, he finished it off OK.”
There are a lot of notable things that happen in life, all of which you try to remember. Not all of those moments stay with you though. However, I remember this night as vividly as if it were yesterday. And after some reflection, it probably wasn’t because of the goal or those Scottish guys. It was because of the context surrounding it. My favorite team was really good. I believed deep down in my heart that my favorite team could overcome any and all odds. My favorite team could and – at the time I believed – WOULD finally win a Stanley Cup. Also, after many years of the Verizon Center being empty, people were coming out in droves to support the team. Boy, those those were really good feelings.
Since that year, I’ve been eager to see what this team will do next. I believe in Ovechkin. I believe in this collection of core players.
So with Opening Night one day away, I keep thinking this:
Maybe this is the year.