With the defending Stanley Cup Champion Detroit Red Wings coming to town on Saturday we’ll get a good chance to see how Alexander Ovechkin and company match up with the current favorites to take home the Cup this spring. The Red Wings are very good and since last June, when they hoisted and then drank from Lord Stanley’s Cup, they have added forward Marian Hossa, who played against Detroit as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins in last year’s finals. So given that acquisition along with their current roster, and despite what San Jose is doing in the regular season so far, I still think the Motown crew is the team to beat in the NHL. Fortunately for the Caps, they would not have to face the Red Wings until the Stanley Cup Finals, if they are good enough and lucky enough to get there.
So having mentioned “The Cup” and seeing that we have a pretty darn good hockey team in this area this season, I thought it would be fitting to take a look at this year’s Washington Capitals team and see where it stacks up with some of the very good Caps teams of seasons past. Some of those Caps teams, at this point in the season, or even later, were thinking Stanley Cup, only to be derailed somewhere along the line for various reasons. Having worked for the team, covered the team, or followed the team since their inception I’ve ridden the Capitals rollercoaster of expectations and endured that all too often sudden crash and burn that ends with a series loss in the playoffs.
So first let’s look at some of the past great Caps teams that expected to go deep in the playoffs or win the Cup only to lose out and then examine why they failed. We’ll also look at the competition in those years as well. After that, we’ll compare this current Caps team to those other top Washington teams and their expectations. I’ve ranked these nine best Caps teams in order of how realistic I thought the team had a chance to win the Cup that season (weakest chance to best chance):
9. 1994-95 Record: 22-18-8 for 52 points (shortened season due to lockout); Lost in First Round to Penguins, 4-3 (New Jersey wins Cup) Analysis: Jim Schoenfeld’s club struggled early and then Jim “Ace” Carey seemingly came out of nowhere to carry this team from the bottom of the standings and into the playoffs (he was 18-6-3 in the shortened season). Peter Bondra had 34 goals in 47 games to lead the team in scoring. The Caps were on fire in the first four games of their playoff series against the Pens but then Carey’s magic left him and it was another painful Penguin comeback that Caps fans had to live with all summer. I still can’t forget seeing slow skating Francois Leroux going around Ken Klee on the right wing boards to set up Luc Robitaille for the overtime winning sixth goal in game five that got the Pens back into the series. In this lockout season there was no real clear cut Cup favorite other than Detroit, but they laid an egg against the Devils in the finals getting swept in four games.
8. 1983-84 Record: 48-27-5 for 101 points; Lost to Islanders in Patrick Division Finals, 4-1 (Edmonton wins Cup) Analysis: This team followed up their first ever playoff appearance in 1982-83 with a great regular season. Mike Gartner had 40 goals and led the team with 85 points while Bengt Gustafsson (32 goals), Dave Christian (29 goals), and Bobby Carpenter (28 goals) all could put the puck in the net. The defense had three HOF’ers in Rod Langway, Scott Stevens, and Larry Murphy. Besides the fact that the Islanders, who had won four straight Stanley Cups, owned the Caps, the other major downfall was the Washington goaltending which relied on both Al Jensen and Pat Riggin. Jensen was horrible in the series loss to the Islanders. Bottom Line: The Caps were still young but were inferior to the Islanders and would have had little chance against the vaunted Oilers in the Finals, had they even gone that far.
7. 1984-85 Record: 46-25-9 for 101 points; Lost to Islanders in Patrick Division Semi-Finals, 3-2 (Edmonton wins Cup) Analysis: This team featured the goal dust twins in Gartner (53) and Carpenter (50) and had pretty much the same lineup as the previous season. Langway was +35 on the campaign. Washington won the first two games of this best of five game series at the Capital Centre as Gartner got off to a hot playoff start. But when the series went to Long Island the offense went cold in a 2-1 loss in game three and then in game four, Carpenter missed a penalty shot in the third period in an agonizing, 6-4, loss. Finally, in the decisive game New York goalie Billy Smith was the difference as he stoned the Caps in a bitter, 2-1, loss. Bottom Line: The Caps should have won this series but couldn’t finish their chances. I still don’t think they could have beaten Edmonton but it would have been neat to see them try.
6. 1989-90 Record: 36-38-6 for 78 points; Lost to Bruins in Eastern Conference Finals, 4-0 (Edmonton wins Cup) Analysis: This team was terrible for the first half of the year then Coach Bryan Murray was fired and replaced by his brother Terry in January and suddenly the Caps could score goals. This team caught fire from late February on and was playing as well as anyone heading into the playoffs. They knocked off New Jersey in the first round behind Dino Cicarelli’s 11 points and then against the Rangers, John Druce had 9 goals and 2 assists. But the big problem were the injuries as New York cheap shot artist Kris King took out Ciccarelli’s knee and then defensemen Kevin Hatcher’s as well to severely weaken the Caps line-up heading into the Boston series. In that Rangers series Stevens badly hurt his shoulder as well but continued to play through the pain against the Bruins. However, all of the injuries finally took their toll and a missed Kelly Miller penalty shot in game one took the wind out of Washington’s sails. The Caps used both Don Beaupre and Mike Liut in net during the playoffs and it worked until the three key players got hurt. A healthy Caps team could have beaten Boston and taken on the Messier led Oilers in the finals. This team looked primed for the 1990-91 season but then we had the awful Georgetown limo incident and Stevens took off for free agency leaving GM David Poile with a big hole on defense without #3 and Langway starting to show wear and tear in the twilight of his career. Forward Geoff Courtnall also demanded a trade and he was shipped to St. Louis.
5. 1997-98 Record: 40-32-12 for 92 points; Lost to Red Wings in Stanley Cup Finals, 4-0 Analysis: This team got all of the breaks that past Capitals playoff team’s never received from the disallowed Bruins goal (skate in the crease) to having to face only the Bruins, a young Senators team, and then Buffalo en route to the finals (no Penguins or Flyers to derail this train!). The key to this team was Olie “The Goalie” Kolzig who flat out carried the Caps to the finals. If the Caps ever had this goaltending with some of the teams in the 80’s or in 91-92 they would have won a Cup. Washington was slightly overmatched against the Wings but hung tough in Motown until Esa Tikkanen missed an empty net that would have given the Caps a two goal lead in game two. Games one through three saw Washington lose by a goal and by game four the mountain was too steep to climb and they lost, 4-1. Ron Wilson was the first year coach and George McPhee the first year GM but they inherited a great team from Poile and Jack Button. Button sadly passed away due to cancer in 1996 and Poile was fired in a marketing move as the team missed the playoffs in 1996-97 for the first time in 15 years due to numerous injuries. McPhee did add some nice pieces in Brian Bellows and Tikkanen late in the season, although word has it every player in the locker room could not stand Tikkanen.
4. 1987-88 Record: 38-33-9 for 85 points; Lost to Devils in Patrick Division Finals, 4-3 (Edmonton wins Cup) Analysis: This was the transition year for the Caps from a nice regular season team to one that was tougher and more built for the post season thanks to the arrival of Dale Hunter, who came over from Quebec in a draft day trade in 1987. Hunter’s overtime winner against the Flyers in game seven after the Caps trailed three games to one is still my favorite Caps goal of all time. The Caps easily won game one against New Jersey and would have easily beaten them in that series except for one thing: Pat Verbeek cut Langway on the back of the leg late in game one ending the two time Norris Trophy winning defensemen’s series. From there Schoenfeld, who coached the Devils, used his tough tactics to lead New Jersey past Washington in the series and in game seven, 2-1, thanks to a goal that came after linesman Kevin Collins missed an offside call on New Jersey (although the league office said it wasn’t offside because the puck came back into the Washington zone off of Mike Ridley’s shin pad). Had the Caps gotten by New Jersey with a healthy Langway they would have had a tough battle with the Bruins and then would have had little chance against Gretzky and company, who knew they had to win the Cup that year because their owner, Peter Pocklington, was going to break the team up in the summer due to financial reasons.
3. 1988-89 Record: 41-29-10 for 92 points; Lost to Flyers in Patrick Division Finals, 4-2 (Flames win Cup) Analysis: Poile traded for Calle Johansson, Bob Rouse, and Ciccarelli at the deadline giving up Murphy, Gartner, and goalie Clint Malarchuk. This led to instant chemistry and the Caps were clear Cup contenders given that Gretzky was in Los Angeles and the Eastern Conference was wide open. The big problem for the Caps was in net as goalie Coach Warren Strelow was very loyal to Pete Peters while many other Caps people thought Don Beaupre was ready to take over in goal (he had played great during the year in Baltimore before being called up to the big club). Warren won out and Peters was just AWFUL single-handily costing Washington a series they should have won easily. The Caps lost game five, 8-5, and then in the decisive game Peters gave up the series winner to Rick Tocchet from behind the goal line at the Spectrum. The route to the Cup was wide open for Washington in 1989 and goaltending cost them. Calgary would get revenge on the Canadiens in a rematch of the 1986 Finals and give Captain and HOFer Lanny McDonald his one and only Stanley Cup ring. The poor goaltending saga, that seemed to last for the past six seasons, led to Olie Kolzig and Byron Dafoe being drafted with the Caps first two picks in the June 1989 NHL entry draft.
2. 1985-86 Record: 50-23-7 for 107 points; Lost to Rangers in Patrick Division Finals, 4-2 (Canadiens win Cup) Analysis: The Islanders had finally been dispatched in the first round by Washington and the Caps went into the Patrick Division Finals as a heavy favorite over the Rangers. The Caps probably got too cocky and when they blew a two goal lead late in game four of this series that would have given Washington a 3-1 series lead the momentum went to New York who played great behind red hot goalie John Vanbiesbrouck. Ridley and Miller, who would later become Caps, killed Washington in this series. The real blow though came in March before the playoffs started when Denis Potvin broke Gustafsson’s leg on a cheap shot hit (I can hear the Garden fans yelling Potvin S—ks!). With a healthy Gustafsson this team could have gone all the way, although the goaltending was still a little shaky. This was the year that Oiler defensemen Steve Smith put the puck in his own net to deny Edmonton its third straight cup as they lost a tough series in seven games to their archrivals, the Calgary Flames. Gustafsson would leave for Sweden after the injury and miss the 1986-87 season before returning for his final two seasons with Washington (1987-88 and 1988-89) and his last shot at a Stanley Cup. Next to the 1991-92 team, I felt that this team had the best chance to win a Stanley Cup for Washington.
1. 1991-92 Record: 45-27-8 for 98 points; Lost to Penguins in First Round, 4-3 (Penguins win Cup) Analysis: During the regular season the Caps had 14 players score 10 or more goals led by Ciccarelli’s 38. Forward Dmitri Khristich had 36 goals and Kevin Hatcher and Al Iafrate each had 17 goals on defense to lead a very offensively talented Washington squad. Beaupre was 29-17-6 in the regular season and for one of the first times ever the Caps had a clear cut number one goalie going into the playoffs. The Caps would have swept the Penguins in four games if not for a horribly refereed game three by Don Koharski at the Igloo that allowed Mario Lemieux and company to score most of their six goals on the power play in a Pens 6-4 triumph. After game four Scotty Bowman changed the Penguins scheme to more of a defensive one and it was all Pittsburgh from there on out, although in game six the Caps were up 4-2 in the second period and looked like they would finally exercise the Igloo demons until Ridley’s cross ice pass went right onto Joe Mullen’s stick for a breakaway that turned the whole game around. This was the best Caps team ever, in my opinion, but they went up against one of the best team’s ever in the Penguins who had Lemiuex, Jaromir Jagr, Mullen, Mark Recchi, Paul Coffey, and Tom Barrasso. After dispatching the Caps in the first round, Pittsburgh cruised through their remaining three series, so in my mind, the Stanley Cup Finals that year was in the first round.
Well having been through many of those heart breaking playoff defeats and survived, it is nice to finally be thinking Stanley Cup again this year with this hockey team for really the first time since the magical run of 1997-98. Right now the Eastern Conference is fairly balanced but the Caps could easily come out of this conference this spring. Of course they could also lose in the first round if they don’t stop taking bad penalties and don’t improve their power play (message to the players: listen to Coach Bruce Boudreau and go to the net more often and shoot the puck!). McPhee has shown that he can make good deadline deals and I think he needs another top six forward (someone who can crash the net and create traffic, like a Keith Tkachuk) and another strong defensive defensemen. He will have to be at his best in managing the salary cap as well. The goaltending will be okay if Jose Theodore continues to play like he has the last month and Brent Johnson gets healthy and plays like he did earlier in the year. So all things look fairly positive for this team and there is one big detail that I haven’t mentioned that I think makes this Caps team stand out against all of those other teams that came up short – OVECHKIN!! This franchise has never had a top line offensive player when they’ve had high expectations going into the playoffs and I think the Great #8 is the one guy who can make the difference for Washington in the playoffs this year and make all Caps fans forget about all of the misses of the past.