This was the day the experts never imagined.
Late February, Game No. 896 of the 2011-12 NHL season, and the Capital Cup turned upside down.
Back before the puck dropped on Game No. 1, every expert from the hallowed Hockey News to the slurring caller to the late-night talk show predicted the Washington Capitals would be the class of the Eastern Conference, would win the President’s Trophy and, in all likelihood, move on to play for the Stanley Cup.
The Ottawa Senators, on the other hand, would come dead last, the experts decreed. Maybe second-dead last, but dead all the same. It would be the price to be paid for the near total dismantling of a very bad team and a decision to start again from all but scratch.
Listen, though, to the owners speak this week. Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis first, on his team’s 5-0 loss Monday to the lowly Carolina Hurricanes: “Worst game of the season. …We came up small when we needed to come up big. … An unacceptable performance.”
Now hear Eugene Melnyk, owner of the Ottawa Senators, on his 21-year-old defenceman Erik Karlsson, who leads all NHL defencemen in scoring by about three touchdowns and is almost certain to be a finalist for the Norris Trophy. Karlsson, Melnyk predicted on a Toronto radio station, will “go down in history as one of the greatest defencemen of all time.”
Young Karlsson didn’t know what to say when asked about standing with the likes of Shore, Harvey, Orr, Bourque, Niedermayer et al: “I mean, I still have a pretty long way to go in my career.”
And then he quietly skated out onto the ice at Scotiabank Place, scored the Senators’ first goal, set up the second and third and generally mesmerized as the predicted-last-place Senators steamrolled over the predicted-first-place Capitals 5-2.
Karlsson’s 47 assists set a franchise record, with 20 games still to play.
The Senators, with the win, stand at 32-22-8 for 72 points, the Capitals at 29-26-5 for 63 points. The Senators are challenging last year’s Stanley Cup champions, the Boston Bruins, for top spot in their division. The Capitals have fallen out of the playoffs at the moment, having lost six of their past seven games.
The Capitals are a mess. They changed coaches – Dale Hunter for Bruce Boudreau – and their record worsened, Boudreau’s record at firing 12-9-1, Hunter’s now 17-17-4 in a league where, in the days of three-point games, .500 hockey is not good enough.
Alexander Ovechkin, once the most thrilling player in the game, is struggling through his worst season with 24 goals and 21 assists and didn’t even play Wednesday night, saying he didn’t “feel well” while his coach, Hunter, claimed the player had “a lower-body injury.” Ovechkin seems, to many, to have lost the spark that so ignited the hockey world these past several years.
The Senators are so far from a mess that head coach Paul MacLean pronounced, rather grandly, that “Our team doesn’t have any holes.”
On this night, it certainly seemed to be true. Karlsson opened the scoring halfway through the first period after taking a brilliant, spinnerama pass from Jason Spezza, NHL third star of the past week. Karlsson found himself alone, moving into the slot area, with Washington goaltender Tomas Vokoun at his mercy.
Five minutes later, Karlsson sent Milan Michalek in and Michalek deftly slipped the puck through Washington defenceman Dennis Wideman before snapping it past Vokoun.
Michalek and Karlsson combined on Ottawa’s third goal early in the second when Michalek tipped a hard drive from the point by Karlsson during an Ottawa power play.
Ottawa went up 4-0 late in the second when defenceman Chris Phillips scored his fourth goal in six games – after going nearly a year without a goal – on a hard blast from the left point that eluded Vokoun’s glove.
The two teams had already played three times this season, with Washington winning all three games. But that was then and this is now, Ovechkin off when he plays and out this night, slick centre Nicklas Backstrom out with injury the past 22 games, playmaking defenceman Mike Green just returned from long-term injury and slowly finding his game.
Not only that, but goaltending has been a problem – Vokoun finally chased from his net after allowing four goals on 11 Ottawa shots and replaced with Michal Neuvirth, who had struggled against Carolina two nights earlier.
Washington scored on a third-period power play when defenceman John Carlson slammed home a nice Alexander Semin pass past Craig Anderson. Later in the period, Mathieu Perreault scored with his face when he deflected in a Jason Chimera shot. “It bounced off my tongue into the net. It's not the way you want to score, but I'll take it,” he said. And Ottawa’s Nick Foligno finished off the scoring with an empty-net marker in the dying moments.
“In past years,” Washington’s Jason Chimera said earlier of the Carolina loss, “we could afford to have a game like that. This year we can’t.”
And now they had another – but still close enough to a final playoff berth that, as the Senators have proved this oddball season, anything is possible.
“We’re still in the running,” Green said.
“We’ve just got to make sure we stay in the running.”