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Twenty years ago, the Capitals were preparing to embark on one of the most memorable and unprecedented seasons in the history of the franchise. However, judging from the events that occurred that offseason, very few fans and analysts would have predicted the season that was about to unfold.
The 1996-1997 season was the first season since the 1981-1982 season in which the Caps had failed to qualify for the playoffs, breaking a 14-year streak. Their record that year was 33-40-9, good enough for just fifth place in the Atlantic Division.
Their performance resulted in a shakeup of management, starting with the firing of longtime General Manager David Poile on May 12th, and reached a pinnacle with the firing of Head Coach Jim Schoenfeld on June 4th. Ironically, Schoenfeld had interviewed for the Capitals’ General Manager job just a week before being ousted as Head Coach.
At the time of Schoenfeld’s departure, the Capitals had released the news that they were talking to both Ron Wilson, the former coach of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim (now the Anaheim Ducks), and George McPhee, who was the Vice President of Hockey Operations for the Vancouver Canucks at the time, but had made no final decisions. Then Capitals owner, Abe Pollin, indicated he planned to be more involved in the team’s operation especially given the fact the team planned to move into their new arena, the MCI Center (now the Verizon Center), during the upcoming season.
As it turned out, the Capitals did indeed hire both, McPhee and Wilson, as General Manager and Head Coach, respectively. When McPhee was hired, one of the things he was tasked to do was to turn around the Caps’ longtime history of being a good regular season team that struggled in the playoffs. At the time, the Capitals had only advanced past the second round just once in their history and that was during the 1989-1990 season.
Regular Season Performance
The Capitals started off the regular season extremely well, winning their first four games and seven of their first eight. The Caps ended up with a record of 7-4-2 for the month of October. November was a break-even month at 6-6-2. In December, the month in which they moved to the MCI Center, they went 4-5-4.
The Capitals began the new year of 1998 posting a 9-2-2 record in January, which included two overtime wins. That month, they played in five games that went into overtime, winning two of them and the other three ended up still tied (shootouts did not come into existence until the 2005-2006 season).
February was a poor month for the Caps, as they won no games, lost four, and were involved in one tie. Given that there was a break for the 1998 Winter Olympic Games, only five games were scheduled that month. The losses included a loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning right before the Olympic break and two losses to Tampa Bay when the break was over. At the end of February, the Caps were 26-21-11.
The losing streak from February continued into March for three more games, but the team rebounded after that to win six of their next seven. The Caps continued to be streaky for the month of March, ending up going 8-7-0 for the month and 34-28-11 overall.
April was much better as they went 6-2-1 during that time frame and ended the regular season on a four-game winning streak. Their regular season could be described as a roller coaster, for lack of a better definition.
The Caps’ final record for the regular season was 40-30-12, good enough for third place in the Atlantic Division and 92 points. They finished behind the New Jersey Devils (48-23-11) who had 107 points and the Philadelphia Flyers (42-29-11) who had 95 points.
Interestingly enough, 92 points would have been good enough for second place in the other division of the Eastern Conference, the Northeast Division. The Pittsburgh Penguins won the Northeast Division with a 40-24-18 record and 98 points.
Individual Performance Highlights
Peter Bondra led the Caps in both goals and overall points, with 52 goals and 78 points. In fact, he was tied with Teemu Selanne for the league lead in goals. He tied his precious career-high in goals, which had come during the 1995-1996 season.
Bondra’s overall point total of 78 points was just two shy of what, up to that point, had been his career-high of 80 points, which had also come during the 1995-1996 season. No other player on the Caps had scored more than 20 goals that year.
Outside of Bondra, the leaders in goals were Adam Oates with 18, rookie defenseman Richard Zednik with 17, and defenseman Calle Johansson with 15.
This season was Adam Oates’ first full year with the Capitals since being traded to the team at the trade deadline the previous season. To go along with his 18 goals, he had 58 assists, leading the team in that department.
Oates’ 76 points were second only to Bondra. Oates was tied for fifth place in the NHL for assists that season with Jozef Stumpel of the Los Angeles Kings. Given the relative goal, assist, and overall point totals, it was evident that Oates was a great playmaker for Bondra that year.
Calle Johansson had 20 assists and 15 goals for 35 points overall, which was third on the team.
The season was great for career milestones as Adam Oates, Phil Housley, and captain Dale Hunter all earned their 1,000th point in the NHL. This was the only time in NHL history in which three players on the same team had reached that particular milestone in the same season.
Oates earned his milestone point in a game against the New York Islanders on October 8, 1997, in which he had a hat trick and added two assists for five points overall in a game the Caps won 6-3. Housley reached the 1,000-point milestone on November 8, 1997, when he assisted on a power play goal by Johansson in a 2-1 win over the Edmonton Oilers. Hunter earned his 1,000th point in a 4-1 win against the Philadelphia Flyers on January 9, 1998.
Other notable players on the team at the time were young players such as defensemen Sergei Gonchar and Brendan Witt and veterans like Michal Pivonka, Kelly Miller, Craig Berube, and Mark Tinordi. McPhee signed Brian Bellows late in the season for the playoff push, after he had played overseas in Germany. Multiple Stanley Cup winner, Esa Tikkanen, was acquired in a trade near the trade deadline.
The team was a rough, tough team as evidenced by Hunter, Witt, and Berube earning over 100 penalty minutes each. That season ended up being the last full season that Hunter spent with the team, as both he, Berube, and Joe Juneau were all traded in deadline deals the following year. It was also the penultimate year for Kelly Miller, another longtime Capital, who played one more season before retiring.
1997-1998 was also the first full NHL season for goalie Olaf Kolzig. While the Capitals originally drafted Kolzig in 1988, he bounced around various Caps farm teams in both the AHL and ECHL and bounced between the Capitals and their AHL affiliates for the previous four seasons. During 1997-1998, Kolzig ended up with a save percentage of .920, which was good enough for fourth in the NHL and a goals-against average of 2.20, which was ninth in the league. Bill Ranford served as his backup.
With 92 points, the Caps were the fourth-seed in the playoffs, as the top seeds in the Conference were the New Jersey Devils, the Atlantic Division winner and Eastern Conference Regular Season Champion with 107 points, and the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Northeast Division winner with 98 points. They were then followed by the Philadelphia Flyers with 95 points.
Other teams making the playoffs from the Eastern Conference included the Boston Bruins with 91 points, Buffalo Sabres with 89 points, Montreal Canadiens with 87 points, and Ottawa Senators with 83 points. The Caps would face the Boston Bruins for Round 1. Other playoff matchups in the Eastern Conference would include the top-seeded New Jersey Devils meeting the Ottawa Senators, the Pittsburgh Penguins meeting the Montreal Canadiens, and the Philadelphia Flyers meeting the Buffalo Sabres.
Round 1 Against the Boston Bruins
As the fourth-seed playing the fifth-seed, the Capitals enjoyed home ice advantage for the first series. The Capitals won the first game of that series, which took place at the MCI Center on April 22, 3-1. Game 1 featured goals by Bellows, Gonchar and Tikkanen. For the Bruins, former Capital Dmitri Khristich scored the lone goal for Beantown.
In Game 2, which took place on April 24, Washington took the lead with goals from Tikkanen and Johansson. But, the Bruins struck back with three unanswered goals during the third period. The Caps got a last-minute goal from Gonchar to tie the game and send it into overtime. Darren Van Impe won the game for Boston at the very beginning of the second overtime period with his second goal of the series. The final score was 4-3.
The series shifted to Boston for Game 3 on April 26th and the Caps bounced back. Gonchar scored two goals, but Boston countered with two power play goals. The game went to double overtime again and this game was more successful for the Caps as Juneau scored the game winner six and a half minutes into the second overtime period to give the Caps a 3-2 victory.
Game 4 was played on April 28 and was a shutout win for the Caps as they won 3-0 on two goals by Adam Oates and one goal by defenseman Ken Klee. The Caps now had a 3-1 lead in the series. Boston won Game 5, 4-0, when the series returned to Washington on May 1.
Game 6, which took place in Boston on May 3, was an exciting affair in which both teams traded goals during regulation. Washington received goals from Richard Zednik and Oates, but Boston countered each of those goals. Anson Carter, who had originally started his career with the Caps, scored the Bruins’ second goal. As a result, the game went to overtime. This time Brian Bellows scored the overtime game-winner, with assists from Juneau and Joe Reekie. The Caps ended up winning the game 3-2 and the series 4-2 and advanced to Round 2.
Round 2 Against the Ottawa Senators
As it turned out, all three of the higher seeds in the Eastern Conference playoffs were victims of upsets in the first round. The high-flying New Jersey Devils, the top seed of the Conference, lost to the Ottawa Senators in six games. Pittsburgh, the Atlantic Division winner and second seed, lost their series to Montreal in six games. The Philadelphia Flyers, the third seed, who had finished just ahead of the Caps in their division, won just one game in their series against the Buffalo Sabres. As a result, the Capitals became the top seed in the East and and were slated to meet the Ottawa Senators.
The series started on May 7 in D.C. Ottawa opened the scoring in Game 1 with a shorthanded goal more than halfway through the first period, but the Caps struck for four unanswered goals starting a minute later and continuing through the third. The Senators countered with one power play goal, but it was too little too late for the Senators. The final score was 4-2. In that game, the Caps’ goal-scorers were Zednik, Oates, Bondra, and Bellows.
In Game 2, which was played on May 9, the Capitals started the scoring on a goal from Brendan Witt about halfway through the second period which was answered just a minute later with a goal by Alexei Yashin. After that, it was all Capitals as they exploded for five more goals, with three more in the second period and two more in the third period. The final score was 6-1. Goal scorers for the Caps in that game were Witt, Juneau, Reeke, Zednik, and Bellows.
The series shifted to Ottawa for Game 3 on May 11. This one went better for the Senators as they scored two goals before the 10-minute mark. The Caps scored on a power play by Gonchar, but Ottawa scored again before the second period was over. The Caps scored two goals during the third period from Bondra and Zednik, but it was not enough as the Senators had also scored another goal. The final score was 4-3.
Game 4, played on May 13, was much better for the Capitals as they won 2-0 on goals from Gonchar and Mark Tinordi. The series, once again, returned to Washington for Game 5 which was played on May 15. This game was another shutout for the Capitals, as they won 3-0 on goals by Juneau, Gonchar, and Johansson. The Caps won the series and advanced to the third round of the playoffs for only the second time in their history. The first time came back in 1990 when they had fallen to the Bruins.
Round 3 Against the Buffalo Sabres
The Capitals would now meet the Buffalo Sabres who had originally been seeded sixth in the Eastern Conference, but had swept Montreal in the second round. Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals was played on May 23 at MCI Center. The Caps’ offense seemed to take the night off, as they lost to Buffalo 2-0 in the series opener.
Game 2 took place on May 25. Buffalo opened the scoring in this contest, but Peter Bondra scored a power play goal with five seconds left in the second period to even up the score. During the third period, Juneau scored to give the Caps the lead. However, Buffalo scored with just under a minute left in the third period to even up the score and send the game to overtime. In this game, Todd Krygier scored about three minutes in to win the game for the Caps and even up the series. The final score was 3-2.
On May 28, the series shifted to Buffalo for Game 3. The Caps came out firing and scored the first two goals courtesy of Bondra and Zednik. Buffalo scored the next three goals to pull ahead. With less than four minutes to go, Zednik scored his second goal of the game, sending the game to overtime. This time, Bondra was the hero as he scored halfway through the first overtime period as the Caps won 4-3. This was the Caps’ second consecutive overtime playoff win.
They played again on May 30 for Game 4 and this time, the Caps shutout the Sabres 2-0, with Craig Berube and Juneau both scoring during the third period, with Juneau scoring on a shorthanded goal.
The Caps returned home to the MCI Center for Game 5 on June 2. It was not a good game for the Caps, as they lost 2-1. Buffalo opened the scoring in first period, but the Caps evened it up on a power play goal by Andrei Nikolishin. In the end, Buffalo scored late in the third period and that finished the scoring as the final score was 2-1.
As a result, Game 6 took place in Buffalo on June 4. In this game, Buffalo scored during the second period with Tikkanen countering with a goal for the Caps. Buffalo then scored during the third period and Bondra countered with the equalizer on a power play. The game proceeded to overtime when, with under six and a half minutes to go in the first overtime period, Juneau scored the game-winner and series-winner. For the first time ever, the Caps advanced to the Stanley Cup Final. Juneau, once again, went prospecting for goals, as this game winner was his sixth of the postseason.
The Stanley Cup Final Against the Detroit Red Wings
The Caps would now meet the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Finals. The Red Wings had entered the playoffs as the third seed in the Western Conference. During the regular season, they had finished second in the Central Division to the Dallas Stars, who had won the President’s Trophy that year.
During the playoffs, the Red Wings beat the then Phoenix Coyotes in six games during Round 1. In Round 2, they beat the St. Louis Blues in six games. In Round 3 (the Western Conference Finals), they met the Stars and beat them in six games. As Detroit had a better regular season record than the Caps, at 44-23-15, they received home ice advantage. This was the second consecutive appearance by the Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Final, as they had also won the Cup in 1997.
Game 1 of the series took place on June 9 at Joe Louis Arena. Detroit scored two goals during the first period. Zednik scored during the second period. Unfortunately, he was the only Capital to score, as they fell 2-1.
Game 2 took place on June 11. In that game, Detroit scored first, but the Caps countered with three goals during the second period with goals scored by Bondra, Chris Simon, and Oates. Detroit scored in the third period, but the Caps scored their fourth goal soon after on a goal from Juneau.
They had a 4-2 lead, but Detroit scored quickly after the Caps’ fourth goal and tied it with less than five minutes to go. The Caps ended up losing when Detroit scored in overtime. That game was notable for Tikkanen missing an open net during the overtime period. The Caps ended up losing 5-4 and were now in a two-game hole before returning home for Game 3.
Game 3 was held on June 13. In this game Detroit scored first during the first period. But, the Caps evened up the score during the third period when Brian Bellows scored on a power play goal. With less than five minutes to go, Sergei Fedorov scored the game-winner as Detroit won 2-1.
Game 4 took place on June 15. In this game, Detroit scored the first two goals. While Brian Bellows scored one goal for the Caps, Detroit scored the next two goals on power plays and won the game 4-1 as they swept the Stanley Cup Final series. This gave the Red Wings their second consecutive Stanley Cup. This sweep was an anticlimactic ending for the Caps’ first-ever (and to this day, only) trip to the Stanley Cup.
For the postseason of 1998, the Caps won five games in overtime and lost two overtime games. Joe Juneau had four game-winning goals throughout the playoffs, including two games that required overtime, with one being the series winner for Round 3.
The Caps’ leading scorers in the postseason were Juneau with seven goals and 10 assists and Adam Oates with six goals and 11 assists, both earning 17 points overall. Andrei Nikolishin scored just one goal, but had 13 assists for 14 points. Brian Bellows had six goals and seven assists for 13 points. Peter Bondra had seven goals and five assists for 12 points. Sergei Gonchar had seven goals and four assists. Richard Zednik had seven goals and three assists. Calle Johansson had two goals and eight assists. No other Capital had more than six points.
Olaf Kolzig led in many goaltending categories for the playoffs, including Shots Against with 740, Saves with 696, Save Percentage with .941, and Shutouts with four. Juneau, Bondra, and Zednik were tied for third in playoff goals for all players with seven. Andrei Nikolishin was tied for second in playoff assists. Juneau and Oates were tied for fifth place in playoff points, following four members of the Detroit Red Wings.
It was a season and a playoff run to remember.
By Diane Doyle