This is the third of several musings during the break. The second article discussed some of the remaining regular season schedule challenges beginning with the potential impact of the bye-week. The first article centered on Barry Trotz and his Midas touch. Today, we take a “big picture” look at the history of the Capitals.
While the quest to win a Stanley Cup is nowhere near over, the Capitals have come a long way since an inauspicious beginning to their history back in 1974. Two weeks ago, the Capitals reached more wins than losses all-time for the first time in franchise history, a significant and symbolic, yet quietly observed, accomplishment.
Since beating the Montreal Canadiens 3-2 on February 4, the Caps have not taken a step back, and hopefully the Capitals franchise record will remain with more wins than losses forever. Their cumulative record now stands at 1510 wins, 1505 losses (which includes 133 OTLs) and 303 ties from an era when there was such a thing.
One of the reasons it took 42 seasons to reach this point was the way the franchise began, with the odds stacked against it. When the Caps began play in 1974, it was easier for existing clubs to stockpile better players. There were also two expansion drafts held in the prior four years for four new clubs (which diluted talent), and the NHL faced stern competition for players from a 14-team rival league (World Hockey Association).
As part of the Caps and Kansas City Scouts (now the New Jersey Devils) expansion draft, existing teams could protect all first-year pros and players young enough to play junior-level hockey, an additional two goaltenders, fifteen skaters, and then pull back a player each time they lost one. As a comparison, today’s Capitals would only have to expose three or four key players instead of the approximately ten the Vegas Golden Knights will get to choose from this June in the league’s first Expansion Draft in nearly 20 years.
The World Hockey Association operated from 1972 to 1979 and was successfully pulling talent to its league; Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull were just some among many others. (The WHA is where the Capitals legends Mike Gartner and Rod Langway began professionally.)
While the 1974 Expansion Draft might go down as the worst ever in terms of the talent made available (reparations worthy), at least the Caps played their first season with a lot of heart and endeared themselves to fans. In their inaugural season in 1974-1975, the Caps had only 21 points and eight wins, while surrendering 446 goals and allowing a -265 goal differential; all NHL records for a season lasting 70 or more games.
Unfortunately, the next season was really bad too; as the Caps managed only 11 wins in 1975-1976, which still ranks, in its own right, as seventh-worst in a season of 70 or more games. Over a two-season span, the next closest record to the Capitals’ 19 wins and 53 points over 160 games is the Ottawa Senators record of 24 wins and 61 points over 168 games from 1992-1994. If you supported the Caps through these first two seasons and to this very day, you don’t have to talk to me about sports fandom, you’ve defined it.
The Road to Post-Season:
There were no playoff appearances in the first eight years of the franchise, but on a positive note, the Caps have managed to qualify for the playoffs for over 60% of its history, and an impressive 26 times out of the last 33 seasons played. During this span, however, the Caps have only passed the second round twice, and in both cases ended up losing their final series 4-0, to the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference final in 1990, and to the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Finals in 1998.
Adding insult to injury, the Caps have managed to lose ten playoff series in which it led 2-0 and/or 3-1, not common among sports franchises. In the 1980s, the New York Islanders knocked out the Capitals in four of its first five playoff appearances. For three more recent playoff appearances, it’s been the New York Rangers performing this malicious deed. But over the Capitals’ history, the Pittsburgh Penguins have been the ultimate nemesis, winning eight out of nine playoff series, including four times in which the Capitals held a 2-0 and/or 3-1 lead.
Only the St. Louis Blues, Buffalo Sabres and Vancouver Canucks have existed longer without hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup, although each have been to the Finals more than once.
The Promised(?) Land:
For many fans of the Capitals — over these 42 seasons for the past 43 years – watching, listening, and reading about the games since October 9, 1974 — it’s not that you can’t enjoy wonderful regular season rides like the one this year, you definitely can, but it’s also very much about winning in the playoffs.
The Caps have sought to win the Stanley Cup every year since 1974, something 17 other clubs have managed to do, including thirteen teams — Edmonton (5), New Jersey (3), Colorado (2), Tampa Bay (1), Carolina (1), Anaheim (1) – whose NHL franchise started at the same time as or after the Caps.
Let this be the year the Caps win the Stanley Cup. Let’s continue to enjoy and cheer the team during this regular season but let’s win the Cup too … for all Caps fans, for this year’s roster, for Trotz and the coaching staff, and for the over 500 players who have played for this franchise that finally has more wins than losses.
By Tim Foisie