WASHINGTON – The Washington Capitals took the long road, suffering through three last-place finishes while assembling a team good enough to get back to the playoffs. The plan looked good on paper, but it was awfully tough to live through.
The Philadelphia Flyers took the accelerated rebuilding path. Reacting aggressively to the worst season in franchise history, they’ve returned to the post-season after an absence of only one year.
The NHL’s two most improved teams of the 2007-08 regular season meet Friday in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference first-round playoff series. They will not only be competing short-term to see who advances, but also long-term to see which team crafted the better comeback from the cellar.
“There’s two different markets,” Washington goaltender Olie Kolzig said. “Philly’s a hockey market. They’ve got deep pockets, and their way was to buy people out and then sign new guys and make some good trades. Ours was to make some good draft picks, and as we got better, add some veteran leadership. One’s a quick fix because they have money. Ours takes a little longer, but I think over the long run we could be a better team.”
Possibly, but it would have been hard to imagine hockey-crazed Philadelphia patiently waiting out an extended youth movement, especially when playoffs were an annual Flyers event from 1995-2006. While setting team records for most losses (48) and fewest points (56) last season, general manager Paul Holmgren started the roster overhaul just before the trade deadline.
Oft-injured team captain Peter Forsberg and Alexei Zhitnik were among those jettisoned. The new crop of Flyers includes Martin Biron, Jason Smith, Kimmo Timonen, Scottie Upshall and Scott Hartnell, all of it topped by the signing of free agent Danny Briere to an eight-year contract worth US$52 million.
Mix in some young talent that had played in the minor leagues under promoted coach John Stevens, and it adds up to a 39-point improvement in the standings.
“You hope you can turn it around that fast,” centre R.J. Umberger said. “Sometimes it’s not realistic. We did such a good job bringing guys in, and the team came in with a good workmen’s attitude over the summer. When we get the right players, you can turn things around.”
The Capitals, by contrast, had a disappointing early exit in the 2003 playoffs and held a fire sale the following season as the lockout loomed, casting off Jaromir Jagr, Peter Bondra and nearly anyone else with a large salary.
“You have a plan, and you try to execute it, and you stay with it,” owner Ted Leonsis said. “You can’t be self-satisfied because we haven’t won a Cup, but that’s the plan. We saw you can’t get really, really good unless you’re really, really bad. We have to build through the draft, and so we took our hits.”
There were days when even a telescope wouldn’t have spotted the light at the end of the tunnel. The Capitals used a lot of young, raw players and had their worst three-year stretch since the early 1980s.
All the while they were building around their budding superstar, 2004 No. 1 overall draft pick Alex Ovechkin, and this season added the final necessary pieces: coach Bruce Boudreau and trade-deadline acquisitions Sergei Fedorov, Cristobal Huet and Matt Cooke.
Washington won its final seven games, took the Southeast Division title and finished with a 24-point improvement from last season. They’ll be the No. 3 seed in the playoffs, while the Flyers are seeded sixth.
“It feels great to be able to deliver something right now,” general manager George McPhee said, “because we’ve been telling people ‘It’s going to happen.’ There were a lot of future promises.”
McPhee said he made notes to himself to get him through the lean times: “Take your time, build it right.”
“If the owners aren’t patient, then you can’t do what we just did,” he said.
Notes: Flyers captain Smith practised for the first time this week on Thursday and hopes to return from his upper-body injury for Game 1. “I felt good out there,” Smith said. … Asked if he’s getting treated differently now that he’s led the Capitals to the playoffs, Washington coach Bruce Boudreau said: “My cats aren’t even coming near me anymore. They must know it’s playoff time.”
AP Sports Writer Dan Gelston in Voorhees, N.J., contributed to this report.