It’s the greatest time of the year for hockey fans with the Stanley Cup Playoffs commencing this week.
Locally, after missing the post season a year ago and subsequently firing their General Manager and Head Coach, the Washington Capitals return to what will be a two month grind for two teams with a strong squad and major cause for optimism.
The Caps took second place in the Metropolitan Division with 101 points and gained home ice against their first round opponent, the New York Islanders, who also had 101 points, by virtue of a 2-0-2 head to head record.
At this point, I’d expect many long time Capitals fans to “duck and cover” given Washington’s 1-5 all time playoffs series record against the guys in blue and orange. Sure the last time they met was in 1993, but when it comes to the playoffs, New York has pretty much owned the Caps, although nearly every series has been close.
This spring’s series promises to be another close affair, especially since these two clubs played three overtime games this season. I’ll have my series preview up on Monday night in plenty of time for Wednesday’s opener at the Verizon Center at 7 pm.
The previous six Caps-Isles series don’t really matter to any of these players, since it’s been 22+ years since they occurred. But for the Washington fans, they have to feel like the Capitals might finally be due to win, right?
So with that in mind, here’s a recap of the previous six Caps-Islanders series with my take on each, since I was either viewing as a fan, covering it for the PG Post Sentinel, or working for the Capitals in my role as team statistician (1987-1997). I hope you enjoy a trip down memory lane, despite the five unhappy endings.
1982-83 Patrick Division Semifinals (1st Round): Islanders win series, 3-1.
This was the season the Capitals made their first appearance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs after a marvelous first season under GM David Poile and the Secretary of Defense, Rod Langway. Unfortunately the Caps ran into the best team in hockey that year as the Islanders would go on to win their 4th consecutive Stanley Cup. This was a total mismatch series, but Washington did win game two on Long Island, 4-2, as Bob Gould scored the game winner. That’s about all to remember about that series.
1983-84 Patrick Division Finals (2nd Round): Islanders win series, 4-1.
Washington won their first playoff series ever in the opening round literally punching the Philadelphia Flyers in the mouth in a three game series sweep. Bob Carpenter and Mike Gartner were terrific and each beat up a Sutter brother (Rich and Ron) in a Washington 5-1 triumph in game three. That brought them the aging but still four time Stanley Cup Champions in round two. The Caps came out strong in the series and won game one, 3-2, at Nassau Coliseum and had a great chance to win game two, only to lose in overtime, 5-4. With game 3 at the Capital Centre, a super Caps team played New York tight but the game and the series turned on a penalty call on Carpenter, who was sent to the box for illegal equipment, he had a hole in his glove! That was against the rules (Never, never..) and the Capitals, who were carrying the play, gave up a power play goal and didn’t recover. They lost, 3-1, in game three and were beaten soundly in games four and five. The Islanders would go on to the Stanley Cup Finals, but Wayne Gretzky and company took them out in five games to win their first Cup. That sent the Islanders dynasty, which received a shot in the arm with the arrival of rookie Pat Lafontaine in the spring, on its first step towards a decline that would eventually lead to a rebuild.
1984-85 Patrick Division Semifinals (1st round): Islanders win series, 3-2.
This was the beginning of the Capitals penchant for blowing two game series leads. The Caps won two razor close tilts at the Capital Centre, in overtime, to take a 2-0 lead. Alan Haworth beat Billy Smith in game one and then Gartner came down the right wing and beat Kelly Hrudey early in the second OT of game two. The series moved to the Nassau Coliseum and after losing game three, 2-1, the Caps had a chance to tie game four late when the Islanders knocked the net off with the puck in the crease. Carpenter was given a penalty shot and he missed sending the series back to Landover. The Caps were super in game five that was officiated by Bryan Lewis, much to the chagrin of many unhappy Washington fans. This was the peak of the “clutch and grab” era and the Capitals felt that Lewis allowed the Isles to slow down a faster and younger Caps team with those tactics. However, the Capitals still dominated play and the shot totals, but Smith was in the zone in net. In fact, the Capitals could still be trying to get the tying tally on the crazy net minder and they probably still wouldn’t score. Smith stoned Washington as the Isles got two pucks past Pat Riggin to win, 2-1.
1985-86 Patrick Division Semifinals (1st round): Washington wins series, 3-0.
This season is still one of the most painful for me to think about because it was really a year in which the Caps had a great chance to win the Cup. The two time defending champion Oilers would get knocked out in the second round by the Flames when Steve Smith put the puck in his own net in game seven and the Canadiens, riding a rookie goalie named Patrick Roy, would go on to defeat the Flames in the Finals. The Caps had a GREAT team that season. At the time they had a club record 107 regular season points (no three point games then!) and were really loaded from top to bottom with the biggest weakness being goaltending. Scott Stevens was a dominant defensemen in the league at the age of 22 and with Langway and future hall of famer Larry Murphy on the back end, the Caps were scary good. Unfortunately, the Capitals headed into that post season without one of their top offensive players, Bengt Gustafsson. Dennis Potvin had broken the leg of Gus on a dirty check in a game in March and #16 was out for the season. I think of that cheap shot every time I hear New York Rangers fans yell their favorite chant: “Potvin [stinks].” But even without Gus, the Caps were too much for the Islanders and the Capitals swept New York handily. Unfortunately bad Caps goaltending and John Vanbiesbrouck did in the Caps in round two. Again, that season end still really stings nearly 30 years later.
1986-87 Patrick Division Semifinals (1st round): Islanders win series, 4-3.
Leave it to the Caps to be the first team to blow a 3-1 series lead in the new playoff format which was instituted that season. The NHL finally got smart and went away from the five game first round, which was four games in five nights, and moved to a seven game opening round series. Naturally, Washington raced out to a 3-1 series lead, in what still entailed a four game in five night format. The game four win came on the night when Larry Mize chipped in on Greg Norman to win the Green Jacket, I clearly remember watching his hole out from the Isles press room, but I digress.
For some reason, Caps Coach Bryan Murray chose to play Pete Peeters at home after Bob Mason had stoned the Islanders in games three and four in the Nassau Coliseum. Mason gave up one goal in those two games to stake Washington to that 3-1 series lead. Peeters would allow four pucks to the Islanders as they won game five at the Capital Centre and then Hrudey held on against a furious Caps late rally to win game six, 5-4. Hrudey and Mason would battle in the epic four overtime thriller at the Capital Centre in a game that extended into Easter Sunday. As a Caps statistician, I was keeping Islanders time on ice that night by hand (we didn’t have software to do the visitors ice time by computer yet) and after the second overtime Murray told me to stop keeping it, he said it didn’t matter anymore! Anyways, I remember Caps defensemen Greg Smith hitting the cross bar in the first overtime and then he ended up fracturing his knee cap in a later period to end his season. The Islanders would win on Lafontaine’s shot off of the post. Hrudey was the other big hero stopping 70+ shots. Mason was super, but Hrudey was better that night. Many new hockey fans were made around the country that evening and early morning as the game seemed to go on forever.
1992-93 Patrick Division Semifinals (1st Round): Islanders win series, 4-2
The Islanders made the post season after missing the two previous years and were led back that season by 23 year old Pierre Turgeon, who scored an astounding 132 points, including 58 goals. He was their best player and certainly played well in the series. After the Caps won game one, 3-1, in dominating fashion, New York would win the next three games in extra time, with two of the goals coming in double overtime. In game two at the Capital Centre, Brian Mullen tallied at 34:50, then in games three and four it was Ray Ferraro, at 4:46 and 25:40 to give the Islanders a 3-1 series lead. The Caps blew 3-1 leads in the third period in both of those tilts. In one of those two games on Long Island, the Caps would have been up by a bigger margin, but Terry Gregson mistakenly wiped out a Capitals goal calling goalie interference on Todd Krygier when replays showed Glenn Healy was hit by the stick of his own player. It was bad zebras that night, but mostly bad goaltending in the series for Washington as Rick Tabarcci was terrible when the pressure came on in the third period. Dale Hunter and Al Iafrate carried the Caps in this series, especially in game five. Iafrate would score six goals in the series, but Don Beaupre was terrible in game six on Long Island and the series ended when Turgeon scored late. I was working the computer that night and I can still vividly recall Capitals statistician lead Mike Herr telling me “goal,” with a slight pause and then the words “and a cheap shot by Hunts.” We all remember that one and Dale would be suspended for the first 20 games of the 1993-94 season because of that move that separated Turgeon’s shoulder. On our way out of the Nassau Coliseum, which was my last visit to that barn, our Capitals team buses were pelted with rocks. On the plane ride home, a bewildered Iafrate wandered up to talk to me and said, “Hey Eddie, how did we lose that series?” I just shook my head.
So there you have it, a little history lesson on the Capitals-Islanders playoff series. It’s 5-1 in favor of New York. So are the Capitals finally due to win one?