Joe Beninati, Craig Laughlin reminisce on start of Capitals' 'Rock the Red' era

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Beninati, Laughlin reminisce on start of Caps' 'Rock the Red' era originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

To fully understand the Capitals' 'Rock the red' era -- a time frame in the late-2000s, early 2010s that started a run of tremendous success for the franchise that's continued to present-day -- one must understand the state of the Caps prior to that.

And, there's no one better to reminisce on Capitals history than Joe Beninati and Craig Laughlin, NBC Sports Washington's Capitals broadcast duo that's been together for 25 seasons and counting.

In episode No. 3 of the 'Told it Here' podcast, Beninati and Laughlin look back at where the Capitals franchise was in the early 2000s and how the organization turned into an annual contender.

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The conversation begins by looking back at the early 2000s Capitals teams, headlined by none other than goaltender Olaf "Olie" Kölzig. Minding the net for Washington since the early 1990s, Kölzig was a staple for those Capitals teams and even led Washington to a Stanley Cup appearance in 2000. He also won the Vezina Trophy, given to the NHL's top goaltender, that same season.

But after that Stanley Cup appearance, the Capitals organization went in the wrong direction. Over the next three years after making the Cup, Washington was bounced in the first round of the playoffs three times and did not qualify for postseason contention the other year.

It was time for a rebuild. And at first, Kölzig, although a veteran, was the face of the movement.

"That's the guy that stepped forward. He was sort of Godzilla," Beninati said. "The fans absolutely adored him. ... He said the right things and then delivered in the net."

As the Capitals fell to the bottom of the Eastern Conference in 2003, one prospect continued to catch their eye. That would be Russian winger Alexander Ovechkin, who excelled at the World Junior Tournament but was not eligible to be drafted until the following year.

Despite Ovechkin not being draft-eligible in 2003, the Florida Panthers tried numerous times to select him. The NHL disallowed it each time, leaving Ovechkin to be the top prospect in the 2004 class.

Washington struggled once again in 2004, but the lottery odds bounced the Capitals' way. The organization landed the No. 1 overall pick and the chance to take Ovechkin, should they want.

"For once, good fortune fell upon this franchise and they have the No. 1 selection," Beninati said. "Is it [Evgeny] Malkin or is it Ovechkin? Two incredible players, you couldn't have gone wrong."

Washington ended up drafting Ovechkin. The rest is history.

"I look back on that time and I was just thinking, 'this could turn around a franchise,'" Laughlin said.

It didn't take long for Ovechkin to make his way up through the Capitals organization to the NHL. The left-winger made his debut in 2005 just weeks after his 20th birthday. He immediately found success individually, as Ovechkin led all rookies in goals, points, power-play goals and shots.

However, while Ovechkin found instant success, his team did not. The Capitals finished last in their division in both of Ovechkin's first two professional seasons.

"His first two years, the Caps are a fifth-place team," Beninati said. "How does it help a young player with all of this pedigree, all these accolades, all these expectations? How does it help a young player to be in a losing situation, to grow up in something like that? You appreciate the eventual winning that is soon to come."

A major turning point in Capitals' history occurred during the 2007-08 season. Bruce Boudreau took over as head coach and changed the team's offensive style. Ovechkin scored a career-high 65 goals, a mark that still holds as his single-season most. Nicklas Backstrom, a rookie at the time, was given a prominent role in the offense, particularly on the power play.

It's also worth noting that the Capitals changed uniforms prior to the season, adding in a prominent red to the colorway. The team was entering a new era and had a new look, too.

Over the final month of the 2007-08 season, no team played better than Washington. They won 11 of 12 games down the stretch to claim the Southeast Division title, earning a playoff berth for the first time in the Ovechkin and Backstrom era.

"I just remember the last month and a half the team needing to rally as desperately as they could to win the Southeast Division title and ultimately going on a rampage down the stretch," Laughlin said. "Seeing a happy Bruce Boudreau on the bench was amazing to me."

In the postseason, Washington hosted the Philadelphia Flyers in Round 1. Capital One Arena, then known as Verizon Center, was filled to the brim in red. The 'Rock the Red' era was born.

"This is the emergence of the 'Rock the Red' era," Laughlin said.

"That building was unbelievably loud," Beninati said. "I remember Game 1 of the series against Philly, Ovechkin had a late in the game steal, score and glass jump. I thought the building was going to implode it was so loud in there. That, to me, was a great celebration of what was to come and the start of all this 'Rock the Red.'"

Although the Capitals lost the series, Beninati remembers that one moment as when the 'Rock the Red' era arrived.

Over the next four years, Washington would go on an incredible run. The Capitals would win four straight division titles during that span, winning the Presidents' Trophy in 2010. It was the start of an incredible decade of hockey, highlighted by none other than the Stanley Cup title in 2018. Those stories, of course, will come in the coming episodes.