For most of the 1970’s, the Capitals were a terrible team who usually finished dead last in their division and often dead last in the league as a whole. The team didn’t qualify for the playoffs until the 1982-83 season, albeit eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. For the rest of the decade, they qualified for the playoffs, finishing second in the Patrick Division for five consecutive years. Despite success during the decade, the team never made it to their ultimate goal of reaching the Stanley Cup Final and winning a championship, as their core aged and grizzled.
So was the set-up heading into the 1989-90 season. A once woebegone team had evolved to become a perennial playoff participant, yet struggled to achieve the postseason success they seemed to be capable of. Head Coach Bryan Murray, who had held the position since 1981, was letting the ink dry on a new, two-year contract extension. Forward Bengt Gustafsson, who had played for the team since the 1979-80 season (save for the 1986-87 season) opted to continue his career in Sweden, while most of the club’s other notable personnel returned to the team for the 1989-90 season, including 1989 trade deadline acquisitions Dino Ciccarelli and Bob Gould, and Mike Ridley, Geoff Courtnall, Dave Christian, Kelly Miller, Dale Hunter, Kevin Hatcher, and Scott Stevens, with defenseman Rod Langway back in his role as Team Captain. Michal Pivonka, John Druce, and Steven Leach were a trio of promising young forwards on the team, while Calle Johansson, a young defenseman acquired at the trade deadline the previous season, also returned to man the blueline. In goal, Don Beaupre was the team’s number one goalie, with several goalie prospects in the system, including Jim Hrivnak and Olaf Kolzig.
The Capitals opened the 1989-90 campaign at home, beating the Philadelphia Flyers 5-3, but the month of October proved to be a poor one for Washington, as they ended up going 3-7-3, with their last win coming on October 16, a 4-3 Overtime win against the Montreal Canadiens. After their victory against the Habs, the Caps experience a stretch of five losses and two ties for a seven-game winless streak.
November was a better month for the team, as they snapped their winless streak in their first game of the month, beating the Toronto Maple Leafs 2-1. The team went 6-4-1 in the second month of the campaign and by the end of the month were 9-11-4, with a two-game winning streak in progress. The Capitals found themselves three points behind the New Jersey Devils, five points behind the Flyers, and eight points behind the front-running New York Rangers.
The Caps had a better record in December, going 9-4, and ending the month with a four-game winning streak, against the Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Devils, and Detroit Red Wings, finishing with a record of 18-16-4 by month’s end. Within the division, the Capitals were tied with the Devils with 40 points and fell one point behind the Flyers, who led the division with 41 points (the Devils had a record of 18-18-4 and the Flyers had a record of 18-17-5 and had played in 40 games). At that point in the season, the team had two games in hand on both the Flyers and the Devils. The Capitals had a relatively mediocre record thus far but the Flyers and Devils, who were their main competition, were also mired in mediocrity, the Rangers, meanwhile, had experienced a very poor month of December, falling from first place to fourth.
The end of the month brought bad news on the health front for the Caps. Langway underwent arthroscopic surgery on both knees on December 28, having injured his left knee earlier in the season, missing some time but returning to game action, only to injure his right knee in the team’s December 23 victory against the Rangers. His right knee suffered no ligament tears but the left had a partial cartilage tear. The estimated recovery time was four weeks. In the last game of the year, against the Detroit Red Wings, Langway’s fellow defenseman Scott Stevens broke his foot, with him being estimated to miss a month.
With two key defensemen missing, the New Year saw a sharp turnaround in the team’s fortunes on the ice. The Capitals began the year with a 7-4 loss to the Los Angeles Kings, snapping their four game winning streak. They lost their next game to the slumping Rangers, who at the time had not won since December 9. The team ultimately lost eight games in a row, pushing them to last place in the Patrick Division.
On January 16, then-General Manager David Poile made the decision to fire Murray and replace him with his brother, Terry, who had been the coach of the Capitals’ then-American Hockey League affiliate, the Baltimore Skipjacks.
Washington Post Story on Bryan Murray Firing
The team won their first game after the coaching change, beating the Devils 9-6. While they won the following game against the Buffalo Sabres, they lost their next two games and ended the month on a positive note by winning their final three gamesl at the end of the month, their overall record stood at 23-26-4, going 5-10 on the month. Langway returned from his injury recovery on January 26 for the Caps’ game against Montreal which coincided with the winning streak at the end of the month. Standings-wise, with 50 points the Capitals were three points behind the Devils and Islanders, each of whom had 53 points, and were tied with the Rangers, who also had 50 points; additionally, they were also two points ahead of the Penguins and three points ahead of the Flyers.
The Caps started off the month of February by losing their first two games, blemishes only brightened by the return of Scott Stevens to the lineup on February 6 against the Quebec Nordiques. Stevens made his presence felt by scoring a goal en route to a 12-2 victory. Despite this large victory, the team were unable to keep momentum, going 5-7 on the month to bring their overall record to 28-33-4. They found themselves in fourth place with 60 points, behind the Rangers (69 points), Penguins (65 points), and the Islanders (64 points). The team had the same number of points as the Devils and were ahead of the Flyers (57 points).
Near the end of the month in a game against the Chicago Blackhawks (which the Caps won 4-0), Stevens and Dave Manson got into a fight during which Stevens gouged Manson in the eye. For the fight, Stevens was given a double match penalty and Manson received an instigator, unsportsmanlike conduct, misconduct and a match penalty. A week later, both players were suspended for three games apiece.
UPI Story on Scott Stevens Suspension for Fight with Manson
The Capitals started off the month of March with a loss to the Hartford Whalers, winning their next game, against New Jersey. By now, the team had made a decision to improve their goaltending for the playoff drive, so they acquired the goalie Mike Liut from the Whalers in exchange for forward Yvon Corriveau. At the time of the trade, Liut’s save percentage and goals-against average were among the Top 4 goalies in the league.
LA Times Story on Mike Liut TradeWashington Post Story On Liut After Trade
Stevens served his three-game suspension for his fight with Manson in games on March 13, March 17, and March 18.
March proved to be a better month than the previous two had been for the Caps, as they went 7-5-2 on the month, ending it with an overall record of 35-36-6. There was only one game in the regular season which took place on April 1, a game which the team won. The Capitals finished the season in third place in the division with 78 points, behind the Rangers who finished in first place with 85 points and a record of 36-31-13, and the Devils, who had 83 points and a record of 37-34-9. The team finished ahead of the Islanders (73 points), Penguins (72 points), and the Flyers (71 points) and were slated to play the Devils in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Dino Ciccarelli led the team in both goals and points with 41 goals and 79 points, respectively. Geoff Courtnall was second on the team in goals and points with 35 and 74; Mike Ridley was third in goals with 30 and third in points with 73. Ridley finished first on the team with 43 assists, followed by defenseman Kevin Hatcher (41), Courtnall, Pivonka, and Dale Hunter (39), and Ciccarelli (38).
UPI Story Before Playoffs
Stanley Cup Playoffs – First Round: New Jersey Devils
With the Devils finishing ahead of them in the standings, the Capitals found themselves on the road for the first two games of their opening round matchup. Game 1 took place at Branden Byrne Arena on April 5, 1990. The game started off well for the Caps, as Ciccarelli scored two goals within the first two minutes of the game to stake the Caps to a 2-0 lead. However, the Devils got one goal back before the first period was even halfway over and tied it up in the second period. This was answered by the Capitals almost immediately, scoring a goal and adding another. The Devils tied it up during the third period, scoring both a shorthanded goal and a power play goal sending the game to overtime, where Ciccarelli, who scored the first two goals of the contest, scored the game-winner to complete the hat trick and lift Washington to a 5-4 win. The game also featured numerous penalties, with the penalty minutes total exceeding 130.
Game 2, played on April 7, again featured over 100 penalty minutes. The Capitals fell into an early hole during the first period, and found themselves down 3-0 after one period, giving up two power play goals in the process. However, the team battled back and the game was tied 4-4, halfway through the third period. However, New Jersey scored the next two goals, and although the Capitals scored once more, but it was not enough as they fell 6-5.
The Caps returned home on April 9 for Game 3, which was less of an offensive showing, but still penalty-filled, with the combined penalty minute total exceeding 70. The Capitals fell 2-1 in the game, but rebounded to win Game 4, 3-1, in which Stevens, John Druce, and Ciccarelli all scored. While Game 4 featured a lot of penalties (a total of 60 minutes), there were only two penalties in the third period.
The penalties ended up settling down to a more normal level for the remainder of the series. Game 5 took place in New Jersey on April 13 and was a 4-3 win for the Caps. The team opened the scoring in the first period on a Dale Hunter goal, but the Devils scored two goals in the second period. The Capitals took the lead with three, third period goals. The Devils added one more goal, but it was not enough to overcome the deficit. The Caps finished off the series by winning Game 6 on April 15 in Washington by a score of 3-2. They had pulled an upset over the higher-seeded Devils and would now play the New York Rangers, who had ousted the New York Islanders in five games in the second round of the playoffs.
Stanley Cup Playoffs – Second Round/Patrick Division Finals: New York Rangers
By winning the Patrick Division, the Rangers held home ice advantage, and as a result, the first two games were played at Madison Square Garden; the first game was played on April 19 and did not end well for the Caps as they lost 7-3. Game 2 was played on April 21, one the Capitals won 6-2 to even the series.
The Capitals returned to the Capital Centre for Game 3 on April 23 and decisively won it 7-1. However, the win proved to be very costly. Goaltender Don Beaupre, who had performed well during the playoffs to that point, pulled a groin in the opening minutes of the game, and left the contest; Ciccarelli injured his knee, and Pivonka did not play as a result of the flu.
Washington Post Story on Caps/Rangers Game with Injuries
Game 4 was also at the Capital Center, The Rangers scored the first goal but the Capitals responded by scoring three unanswered goals, two during the second period and the other coming early in the third period. Those goals included two power play goals by John Druce. However, the Rangers struck back and tied the score to send the game to overtime. Rod Langway scored the game-winner less than a minute into the period, to give the Capitals a 4-3 win.
Game 5 featured a return to Madison Square Garden on April 27. Kelly Miller scored about three minutes into the first period to take a 1-0 lead. But then the Rangers tied the game early in the third period. The game proceeded to overtime where John Druce scored at 6:48 to give the Capitals a 2-1 win and advance them to the Conference Finals, where they would face the Boston Bruins.
This particular series was best known for the goal-scoring heroics of John Druce. In just five games, he scored eight goals and had two assists, scoring a hat trick in Game 3. During the previous series against New Jersey, he had contributed three goals.
NoVa Caps: Third Round and Beyond Playoff Heroes
Stanley Cup Playoffs – Prince of Wales Finals: Boston Bruins
The Caps would meet the Boston Bruins in the Prince of Wales (i.e. Eastern Conference) Finals, a task that was by no means an easy one.
The Caps traveled to Boston Garden to play the Bruins on May 3, 1990, losing this game 5-3, despite a power play goal by John Druce. They played Game 2 on May 5, with the Bruins winning the game 3-0; this game featured over 80 penalty minutes. Former Capitals forward Bobby Carpenter scored the first goal of the game, which turned out to be the game-winner.
Game 3 was played on May 7 at the Capital Centre. In this game, another former Capital, Dave Christian, scored the first goal for Boston. While Druce contributed a power play goal, Boston answered back and won the game 4-1, putting the Caps in a 3-0 deficit. Game 4 was played on May 9 and ended in a 3-2 Boston victory, ending the Capitals’ season in a four-game sweep.
Despite an impressive playoff run, the sweep at the hands of the Bruins was not the only bad thing to happen to the Capitals. The Promotions Manager of a Georgetown bar named Champions decided to host a postseason party for the team to celebrate their long playoff run and sent three limousines to transport the players from the Capital Centre to the bar in order to prevent the players from drinking and driving impaired. A 17-year-old waitress accused Neil Sheehy, Ciccarelli, Courtnall, and Stevens of lewd behavior, claiming that three of them – Ciccarelli, Courtnall and Sheehy – committed rape and sodomy in one of the limousines that evening while Stevens served as a lookout, an accusation and claim that resulted in police getting involved.
A Superior Court grand jury declined to press charges and cleared the players in the eye of the law. However, it caused lasting damage to the franchise: Stevens became a free agent and accepted an offer sheet from the St. Louis Blues, one the Capitals declined to match and accepting four first-round draft picks in return.
Soon after Stevens received his offer sheet, Courtnall was traded to the Blues in return for Peter Zezel and Mike Lalor, while Sheehy never played another regular season game for the Caps. When Ciccarelli’s contract was close to expiration in 1992, the Caps traded him for Kevin Miller, a trade that did not pan out at all. The Capitals would not make it to the third round of the playoffs again until 1998 – the year they made it to their first Stanley Cup Finals.
Related ReadingNoVa Caps: Alumni Profile Dale HunterNoVa Caps: Alumni Profile Scott StevensNoVa Caps: Alumni Profile Dino CiccarelliNoVa Caps: Third Round and Beyond Heroes
By Diane Doyle
Pingback: Looking At The Capitals’ Biggest Threats In The Metropolitan Division | NoVa Caps
Please check your info on game 4 and 5 against the Rangers, I’m pretty sure your version is incorrect. Game 4 was at home which was won on Langway’s OT goal and game 5 was in NY which was won on Druce’s OT goal, sending the Caps to the Conference final.
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