There's no question that Alex Ovechkin changed the trajectory of the Capitals franchise, but it didn't happen overnight. Ovechkin initially added some excitement to Washington hockey, but at least in the standings, it was just more of the same. The Caps earned only 70 points in each of Ovechkin's first two seasons and did not come close to qualifying for the playoffs. Everything changed in the 2007-08 season and on Jan. 31, 2008, people began to realize it.
The Caps played the Montreal Canadiens three times in January 2008. Montreal was one of the top teams in the NHL, but the Caps won in overtime in Montreal on Jan. 5. With a home and home later in the month, the Canadiens responded with an emphatic 4-0 win in Montreal on Jan. 29 before the two teams headed to Washington for the game on Jan. 31. The loss dropped the Caps' record to 23-23-5 and the playoffs seemed to be slipping away yet again.
Everything changed on Jan. 31.
In a rematch against the Canadiens, Ovechkin scored a hat trick in regulation and added a fourth goal for the overtime in a 5-4 win; and he did it even after breaking his nose earlier in the game.
"A feel was starting to build," goalie Ollie Kolzig said. The game was the focus of Monday's "Greatest Hits" broadcast on NBC Sports Washington. Kolzig joined Joe Beninati and Craig Laughlin to talk about the win and Ovechkin's performance.
The game was not polished by any stretch. Washington looked every bit the inexperienced, up-and-coming team, jumping out to a 3-0 lead and then allowing the Canadiens to crawl back. Montreal's comeback included a goal in the final second of the second period and the game-tying goal in the final minute of the third.
But where the Caps teams of past years would have collapsed, this time Ovechkin and the team would not be denied.
"A feel was starting to build. We're winning again, there's excitement, it's enjoyable to be a Caps' fan again," Kolzig said who credited this game as being the turning point.
He added, "We were finding wats to win hockey games."
After going 23-23-5, the Caps would close out the season 20-8-2 including seven straight wins to close out the season to claim the Southeast Division and reach the playoffs for the first time since 2003. Washington would go on to lose in the first round to the Philadelphia Flyers, but to Kolzig, the implications of the win on Jan. 31 and the 2007-08 season stretched far beyond just the 2008 postseason.
"This one turned the corner for the franchise in my opinion," Kolzig said. "We were coming off 3 dreadful seasons where losing was the norm."
That certainly changed in that year. After missing the playoffs for three straight seasons during a rebuild, the Caps have now reached the postseason in 11 of the last 12 and brought home the Stanley Cup in 2018, just ten years after Ovechkin's four-goal game.
To many, the Ovechkin era began in 2005 when he first suited up with the team and made his NHL debut. In many ways, however, the real Ovechkin era did not begin until Jan. 31, 2008.
Said Kolzig, "Everything was just coming together."
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