While fans in recent seasons have been accustomed to a certain amount of success from the Washington Capitals, it wasn't that long ago that there was a completely different environment in Chinatown on game nights. And the five-year anniversary of a fateful change in that environment falls on this Thanksgiving Day.
Five years ago this past Wednesday, on Thanksgiving Eve, a sparse crowd of 11,669 fans at Verizon Center weren't in much of a holiday mood. Despite an expectation of a playoff run from the Capitals at the season's start, Washington lost its fifth straight game to drop to 6-14-1 on the year. The game against the Thrashers was a particularly ugly 5-1 loss, one in which an Alexander Ovechkin goal early in the second was wiped out by three straight Atlanta tallies en route to the loss.
As time wound down that evening, the crowd took its anger out on soon-to-be-former Capitals coach Glen Hanlon, who was serenaded with "FIRE HANLON!" chants throughout the night from those in the half-empty arena, who mockingly cheered the game's "final minute of play" announcement.
That proved to be Hanlon's last night behind the Washington bench. The team that had responded to the defensive style of the former goaltender during the early phase of Washington's rebuilding project was having serious growing pains as the talent level changed, but the style didn't.
"Glen Hanlon was a teacher, he was very disciplined, he played a defensive style, he was a very honest and thorough player and he demanded respect for the game and discipline, and we were very lucky that he was the first coach that these young players were exposed to, and I thought he did a really good job," Capitals owner Ted Leonsis recalled last year for Red Rising. "Then we went out and made investments in free agents ... so that was the year and we spent money for free agents, and we got off to a really, really bad start.
"The fans were howling, the fans were chanting, the media was over the top, and we had to deal with all of that. And then [Capitals General Manager] George [McPhee] thought after that game against [Atlanta], when he spent time with Glen, that Glen said some magic words, which were: ‘I don't know what to do.' For a coach, there is some symbolism in the ‘I'm going to press this button, I'm going to change this lineup,' and when you've run out of those, that really is a cry for help."
"Obviously it wasn't a perfect world with Glen, and I'm not talking about everything else, just in winning," former Caps netminder Brent Johnson recalled. "Down from the brass, to George, something had to be done."
Bright and early on Thanksgiving morning that year, everything changed for the Capitals.
Early on Nov. 22, 2007, McPhee called Hershey Bears coach Bruce Boudreau and let him know he would become the interim coach of the Capitals, while Hanlon was dismissed. Boudreau would finally get his chance to coach in the NHL to try and turn around a Washington team that was looking up at the NHL's other 29 teams.
"That was a good day," Boudreau said last fall when asked about getting the call from the NHL. "It was very surprising, but I was 52, and I'd wanted to be back in the NHL for as long as I can remember. I remember my kid jumping on his bed when he heard, and I remember my wife jumping up and down, and I remember forgetting how to get to Kettler.
"It was a crazy day."
Boudreau wasn't joking about getting lost, but that was one of the few missteps he made in his first few weeks with the club.
Although no one knew it at the time, Boudreau's hiring changed the fortune of the franchise, altering not only the look of the team but also the confidence level of its players. While officially the club was still looking for another head coach after Boudreau's arrival, it didn't take long for the Caps to show signs of the promise they had at the start of the year and Boudreau's interim tag eventually fell away.
While Boudreau no longer coaches in Washington after his firing during the 2011-12 season, it's still a significant point in Capitals history.
Since that fateful Thanksgiving Day shakeup, the Capitals have gone 231-111-47 in the regular season and 24-27 in the playoffs. They went from a team mired in last place in the league to a Stanley Cup contender. In the intervening period, the Caps also have taken themselves from a regional franchise to one that is regularly featured on national television, earning a spot in the 2011 Winter Classic thanks to their strong play.
In hockey terms, the Capitals adopted a much more aggressive style with Boudreau's arrival, as Hanlon's defensive system didn't quite mesh with the speed and talent that he had at his disposal.
Mike Green, a puck-rushing defenseman, was limited in what he could do under Hanlon's style, but was set loose by Boudreau, who saw Green help the Bears win the AHL's Calder Cup two seasons before. Nicklas Backstrom, a rookie who had struggled and got limited ice time under Hanlon, blossomed under Boudreau, scoring the game-winner in Boudreau's first game, an overtime win in Philadelphia.
The Capitals also developed more swagger with Boudreau. They played with a lot more confidence and were less afraid to make mistakes, since their style lent itself to goal production. While the Caps were holding their sticks tightly in the final days of Hanlon's tenure in Washington, they played a flowing game under Boudreau and felt like they could afford to make mistakes given the goal-scoring prowess they possessed.
The irony is that once the 2009-10 Capitals lost to the heavy underdogs from Montreal in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, Washington embraced a system that was closer to Hanlon's than Boudreau's free-wheeling system from his first three seasons with the Caps. And, for Boudreau, eventually that conservative style of play led to the same result as Hanlon's tenure. Asked to play a more defensive style, the players didn't perform up to task and Boudreau eventually was fired on Thanksgiving weekend of 2011, four years after his hiring.
But the hiring of Boudreau five years ago was a dramatic change for the Capitals franchise, as it quickly turned Washington from an also-ran into a true contender, and ignited a style change that quickly made the NHL a hot ticket in town. While the future look of the NHL and the Capitals isn't quite clear yet, it is important to note on this holiday how far the franchise has come in the span of five years.