WASHINGTON – Sergei Fedorov knows how it feels to win the Stanley Cup.
So simply qualifying for the NHL playoffs shouldn’t be that big of a deal, right? Actually, being a part of the Washington Capitals’ worst-to-first surge was a thrill for Fedorov, and not just because neither he nor his new team hadn’t participated in the postseason since 2003.
It was the satisfaction of knowing he was part of three trade-deadline pickups, along with goalie Cristobal Huet and rugged left-winger Matt Cooke, who played significant roles in Washington’s surprising stretch run to the Southeast Division title.
That’s why the 38-year-old Russian threw his arms around Huet and Cooke last weekend and told each, “Guys, welcome to the team. We’re officially in.”
“It’s not easy to come to a different team, different city, different atmosphere, different way of playing for the three of us,” Fedorov said, “and be able to become, as fast as we did, part of this team.”
They quickly became entrenched. So Huet will be in goal while Fedorov and Cooke will be on the ice plenty Friday, when Washington hosts the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference first-round series (7 p.m. ET).
“Those guys,” Washington coach Bruce Boudreau said, “are playing great.”
As the Feb. 26 deadline approached, Capitals general manager George McPhee had a decision to make. His team had lost five-of-six games and some might have wondered whether there was any point to making changes to a club that was last in the league in late November, and 14th in the 15-team East at the season’s midway point.
“It just seemed to be such a great group that it didn’t feel right for them to be shortchanged and not make the playoffs,” McPhee said.
He made three major moves in a bid to get his team going, acquiring 1994 league MVP Fedorov from Columbus, Huet from Montreal, and Cooke from Vancouver.
How did that work out? The Capitals went on to win 15-of-19 games the rest of the way, including seven straight to close the season.
“Fortunately enough, we were able to all get our hand in the pot and help stir the spoon,” Cooke said, “and get to where we wanted to be.”
Huet provided the biggest impact, going 11-2 with two shutouts, a 1.63 goals-against average and .936 save percentage. He initially shared time with Olie Kolzig, but eventually became the team’s No. 1 goalie, starting the club’s final seven regular-season contests.
Huet’s nine consecutive victorious starts is the longest streak by a Washington goalie in more than 20 years.
“He’s just been a pleasure to have here,” defenceman Mike Green said. “It’s his overall presence and his consistency.
“The times he needed to make big saves, he made them.”
The Canadiens decided to go with rookie Carey Price as their No. 1 goalie and dealt the French-born Huet to the Capitals for a 2009 second-round draft choice. The trade came as a bit of a surprise to Capitals fans, who have come to know Kolzig as the face of the franchise.
Huet called the move “shocking news.”
“We’re all proud competitors, and I like to see myself as one. This was a second chance for me, and this team has done such a great run, and I fit, like, perfectly,” Huet said. “I really think that team was going the right way before the trade, and all three of us add a little more to the team. Who knows where we go now?”
Huet, Cooke and Fedorov all have been in the playoffs before, something many of their younger new teammates – including superstar Alex Ovechkin – can’t say.
Additionally, Cooke brings some much-needed toughness. Fedorov, meanwhile, still can win faceoffs and score on breakaways, something he did for the go-ahead goal in the 3-1 victory over Florida on Saturday night that clinched a playoff berth.
“He did look like he was 28,” Boudreau said.
Fedorov has more than 450 goals and more than 1,100 points on his resume, along with those 1997, 1998 and 2002 Stanley Cup rings earned with the Detroit Red Wings.
He also brings a maturity that McPhee certainly noticed.
As the Capitals left the ice following Saturday’s regular-season finale, the GM waited to greet each player with a handshake and message of “Congratulations.” Nearly every single player nodded in appreciation and headed to the locker room.
“He’s the one guy who stopped and said, ‘Congratulations to you, George. Good for you,”‘ McPhee said. “And that’s an older veteran guy that’s won Cups, and you wonder, ‘Does he have that character because they won Cups? Or has he won Cups because he had that character?’
“I don’t know what comes first, but he’s sure got it.”