What happened? The Blues won a thrilling defensive battle with the Philadelphia Flyers last Tuesday, taking a 1-0 victory in another sho(shie)otout to gain first place in the race for the Presidents' Trophy from Boston. A listless, uninspired win over Buffalo Thursday was a precursor of worse things to come, though. The steamrolling Blues have suddenly rolled over after a disastrous weekend in which the offense has disappeared and the defense has been shaky when it mattered. Neither Ryan Miller nor Brian Elliott can be faulted as the team-defense in front of them has vanished and the Blues are suddenly easy pickings, looking lost and bewildered out on the ice. Yes, the Blues made a valiant effort to tie the game in Chicago in the third period, yet the hockey gods broke Alex Pietrangelo's stick (and our hearts) at a very crucial point as the Blues attacked in the last ten seconds or so, and the Hawks got the empty-netter for the win. Yikes!
At the least, the Blues have an opportunity to redeem themselves tonight against the now-out-of-the-playoffs Washington Capitals. With only three games left after tonight, the Caps trail the second-wild-card Blue Jackets by four points. It's tough going the rest of the way for Washington as they travel to Carolina, host Chicago the next night and end the season at home against Tampa Bay. Columbus hosts Phoenix and then travels to Dallas, Tampa Bay and Florida. St. Louis is still four points ahead of Colorado with four games to play for each Central Division club. The Avs play in Edmonton tonight and then end the regular season with games at Vancouver, San Jose and Anaheim. The Blues travel to Minnesota and Dallas before ending the regular season at home against Detroit on Sunday. So, tonight's contest is obviously quite important to both the Caps and Blues.
Washington came into the NHL as an expansion franchise in 1974 (along with the Kansas City Scouts, now the New Jersey Devils). A successful construction contractor in the Washington area, Abe Pollin, headed the investment group that purchased the club.
Pollin, who also owned the NBA Washington Bullets/Wizards, built the Capital Center in Landover, Maryland to house both teams. The first-year Capitals were dreadful, even by expansion standards, finishing 8-67-5 for 21 points in 80 games. Coach Jim Anderson reportedly said, "I'd rather find out my wife was cheating on me than keep losing like this. At least I could tell my wife to cut it out." He didn't last half the season as GM Milt Schmidt (HHoF 1961) took over as coach. Nor did Schmidt, as he was replaced by Max McNab as GM and Tom McVie as coach.
Eight years later David Poile (now with the Nashville Predators) was hired as GM and immediately made a blockbuster trade, sending long-time Caps Ryan Walter and Rick Green to Montreal for defensemen Rod Langway (HHoF 2002) and Brian Engblom, center Doug Jarvis and Craig Laughlin (now the Caps' tv color analyst). Dennis Maruk, Mike Gartner (HHoF 2001) and Bobby Carpenter led the offense. Another major addition was by drafting defenseman Scott Stevens (HHoF 2007) in 1982. Stevens, well remembered in St. Louis as a Blue, is now an assistant coach for the New Jersey Devils. The Caps finally made the playoffs in 1983 after nine long years.
Washington would qualify for the playoffs for the next 14 seasons. However, they would not get to the conference finals until 1998, led by Peter Bondra's 52 goals and the slick play of the Capitals' current head coach, center Adam Oates, yet another former Blue. Unfortunately, they were swept in the Stanley Cup Finals by Detroit. The following summer, the team was sold to a group headed by AOL executive Ted Leonsis. Players came and went, including Jaromir Jagr coming and Oates going (after a salary dispute and demanded trade, sound familiar?). The biggest acquisition, though, was Russian sniper Alexander Ovechkin, drafted in 2004 after the Caps won the lottery from Pittsburgh. Although Ovechkin stayed in Russia (lockout, remember?) to play for Moscow Dynamo, he joined the team the following season and lived up to the hype, scoring 52 goals and 106 points, earning the Calder Trophy as top rookie. Ovechkin beat out Sidney Crosby for the honor.
Even with the Russian super-star, Washington would not return to the playoffs until 2008, nor would they advance past the conference semi-finals in the following six seasons. And it looks pretty unlikely that they will qualify this season. Like the Blues, the Caps have never sipped champagne from the bowl of the Stanley Cup.
Yes, the Blues need to reclaim the confidence they have had all season until now and show the fans they have not suddenly forgotten how to play the game. It's time to get back to basics and follow Hitchcock's system that has them where they are: division leaders with a franchise record 52* (including bonus-time wins not counted prior to 2005) home victories. It's time to get back to work.