Friday, March 07, 2008

Has It Really Been 10 Years?

It has, almost. The Caps seemingly impossible trip to the Stanley Cup Finals was nearly a decade ago. Some aspects of it seem like a hundred years ago, others it's hard to imagine that it has been so long. Ten years. My, how this team has changed. April 22nd, 2008 marks the decade date when the Caps started their playoff run to the finals ten years ago (first game in round one against the Boston Bruins).

In the '97-'98 season, it was the year it all seem to come together. The Capitals had missed the playoffs a year before under head coach Jim Schoenfeld and before that the Caps had made the playoffs an astounding 14 straight seasons. During that stretch the high tide mark the team ever reached was the third round in '89-'90. Mostly they were a first or second round step teams had to go over to make it to the conference finals.

Ron Wilson took over the Capitals in '97 and led them to a 40-30-12 season record (92 points) that year. Players like Peter Bondra (52 goals, 78 points) and Adam Oates (58 assists, 76 points) led the Capitals to their first ever Stanley Cup Finals. They had superstar defensemen in Calle Johansson, Phil Housley, Mark Tinordi and up and comer Sergei Gonchar. Tough guys Chris Simon, Joe Reekie, and a young Brendan Witt. Hardworking forwards like Steve Konowalchuk, Dale Hunter and Todd Krygier. The Caps also acquired some rental help in Jeff Toms (from Tampa Bay), Jeff Brown (from Toronto) and Esa Tikkanen (from Florida). They had even moved into a brand new building downtown D.C.

The Capitals took advantage of the crease rule against the Boston Bruins in the first round. A couple of goals by the Bruins were disallowed and the Caps came back to win in a couple of thrilling overtimes. They made quick work of Ottawa in the next round with Olie Kolzig shutting out the Senators in the final two games. In the conference finals they met up with the Buffalo Sabres and then first year coach Lindy Ruff. Who could forget Matthew Barnaby's "raise the roof" dance in game one at the still new MCI Center where the Caps were shut-out. Wilson turned it into a motivational tool for the Caps, who went on to win the next three games and then finally win the series in 6 games.

Then the finals. The Caps were up against a mountain that was the Detroit Red Wings. They were the dominant team of the 90's and they were coming off an emotional off season where fellow teammate Vladimir Konstantinov was sidelined indefinitely with paralyzing injuries following a Red Wing championship celebration. The Red Wings swept the Caps in four games.

The '97-'98 team changed the next season, seeing Dale Hunter traded to Colorado in hopes of giving the Cap veteran a Stanley Cup ring. And new faces like James Black, Dmitri Mironov and Matt Herr couldn't fill the shoes of those that had left. Bondra and Oates point totals drop from the highs 70's to the high 50's. The Caps would not make it to the playoffs the following season and the three times they did make it there, they were all quick first round exits.

What followed the next couple of seasons for the Caps would be a tailspin that would drastically change the team and see them break apart and rebuild. There was the Jaromir Jagr experiment that went south very quick. Then the sell off that sent Peter Bondra, Steve Konowalchuk, Mike Grier, Robert Lang, Sergei Gonchar, Anson Carter, and even Micheal Nylander to different teams in the '03-'04 season (In return we did get Brooks Laich and Shaone Morrisonn plus draft picks). The Caps went through yawner Bruce Cassidy and then savior Glen Hanlon for head coaches before settling for Bruce Boudreau who has turned this season 180 degrees. While the ride was not always the most enjoyable one, it has been amazing looking back over those ten years and see the progress that was made. George McPhee conducted it all.

When the Caps made the finals in '98 they didn't have a superstar like Alex Ovechkin. Sure, the Capitals had Peter Bondra, but he didn't create a buzz like Ovie has across the league. Back then Jaroslav "Yogi" Svejkovsky was the Caps' best prospect. For the most part the team was made of transients and veterans like Brian Bellows, Mark Tinordi and Joe Juneau to name a few.

The Caps made the most of their sell offs, drafting solid prospects and landing Ovechkin in the lockout draft. The team went through its most stagnate seasons after the lockout of '04-'05 as the young players and prospects were allowed to grow in the new NHL atmosphere. They had to lose to learn how important it is to win.

Now there is ever mounting pressure for the Caps to make the playoffs this season, a do or die attitude that seems to have gripped Caps' fans. However, this is not like the finals team of '98, rather a better improved team that is set up for not just one run at the Cup, but several.

In '98 Peter Bondra was 29 years old, Adam Oates 35, Calle Johansson 30, Joe Juneau 29, Phil Housley 33 and Dale Hunter 37. By contrast, the top scorers for the Caps now are Alex Ovechkin age 22, Nick Backstrom 20, Mike Green 22, Alex Semin 24, Brooks Laich 24. I can understand the impatience that is on the faces of all Caps' fans to make the playoffs once more, but I can easily see this team fighting for championships (plural), not just a playoff run.

Looking back over the past 10 years has sort of changed my mindset about the Caps "needing" to be in the playoffs now. While this playoff run is exciting, it's not the end of the road for the Capitals if they don't make the playoffs.

We would all like to see them there, we have expectations of them being there. I mean we have waited 10 long years. But just look at those 10 years, and you will see the Capitals are in the best position to become a dynasty, not just a step other teams have to go through to get to the conference finals.