Photo Credit: @mikecomitto
As most avid hockey fans, particularly in the United States, are aware, February 22, 1980 marks the day on which the “Miracle on Ice” occurred, in which the United States Olympic hockey team, a team composed primarily of college hockey players, beat the Soviet Union in the penultimate game of the 1980 Winter Olympics and went on to win the Gold Medal in hockey for the first time in 20 years. Just three days earlier, and nearly 500 miles south of Lake Placid, New York, another Miracle on Ice – in Landover, Maryland – occurred when the Washington Capitals hosted the Montreal Canadiens at the Capital Centre.
Heading into the game, the Capitals held a 16-31-9 record, were last in the Patrick Division, and ranked 19th in the NHL out of the then-21 teams. The Canadiens, meanwhile, held a 32-19-7 record, were leading the Norris Division, and ranked fourth overall in the NHL. On top of this, the Habs were also the defending Stanley Cup champions and had won four consecutive championshiops. At that time, the Canadiens were considered to be the NHL’s equivalent to the New York Yankees in baseball. The Caps, meanwhile, were in just their sixth year of existence, had never made the playoffs, and had never beaten the Canadiens in any of their prior 34 meetings, which included 33 losses and a tie, which took place on April 2, 1978. The game of February 19, 1980 was also believed to be a “Guaranteed Win Night”, wherein which, if the Caps did not win the game, all fans present would win tickets to a future home game, with the game to be chosen by team management. At that time, the Capitals occasionally had “Guaranteed Win Nights” as a means to bring more fans to the arena during a time in which wins were few and far between. Starting in goal for the 35th meeting between the Capitals and Canadiens was Wayne Stephenson, who was in his first season with Washington.
Prior to the game, the Capitals’ roster was banged and bruised. Guy Charron and Yvon Labre were both out due to knee surgery and would watch the game from the stands, rookie center Bengt Gustafsson had missed the prior day’s practice because of a pulled groin muscle, and during the pregame warmups, defenseman Robert Picard was hit above the eye with a puck and needed 12 stitches to repair the resulting wound, fortunately able to play.
The first period between the two teams was scoreless, featuring no goals and no penalties from either team.
The game’s play remained scoreless until the 10:53 mark of the frame, when Picard blasted a shot from the right point that found its way past Montreal starting goalie Denis Heron, giving the Caps the initial 1-0 lead; Rolf Ederberg was credited with an assist on the play. Less than two minutes later, at the 12:43 mark, Montreal’s Pierre Mondou cut past Caps’ defenseman, Pierre Bouchard. While he initially lost control of the puck, he managed a backhand shot and poked the puck past Stephenson to tie the game at 1-1 on an assist from teammate Gilles Lupien. That tied the game at 1-1, getting an assist by Gilles Lupien. There were two, late period penalties, one by Mark Lofthouse of Washington and one by Serge Savard of Montreal, however neither resulted in any score for either team, but set up 4-on-4 play for a minute. The two clubs headed into the second intermission knotted at 1-1.
The Canadiens came out firing early in the third period, firing shot after shot at the net and Stephenson denying them all. These included a shot by Yvon Lambert that hit the crossbar and a shot by Pierre Larouche that hit a post, both within 30 seconds of each otherm unsurprising given that Montreal had the first 10 shots of the period. Despite this, the Capitals’ first shot of the period, at 12:57, proved successful. Stephenson had passed the puck to Bob Sirois at the red line, who then passed to Gustafsson, who maneuvered around Montreal defenseman Gaston Gingras and shot a breakaway bullet past Herron in goal. The Capitals now led 2-1 with just over seven minutes to go in the game. Gustafsson’s goal and the resulting lead re-energized the Caps, though the score remained at 2-1. Near the end of the game, the Canadiens pulled Herron in favor of an extra skater. With just 50 seconds left in the game, Mike Gartner blasted a shot from his team’s defensive zone that made its way into the empty net, giving the Caps a 3-1 lead and securing a historic victory for the win-hungry team from Washington. The entire team poured onto the ice to mob Stephenson after the final buzzer sounded. Stephenson made 31 saves on 32 shots, with 17 of those shots occurring during thethird period.
In another sore spot for Montreal, star forward Guy LaFleur injured his knee during the game and would be sidelined.
The 13,551 fans in the audience were jubilant about the Caps’ win even if they did not go home with free tickets for a future game. Stephenson commented afterwards, “We guaranteed it; we had to win”, referring to the guaranteed-win promotion.
Gustafsson, who had scored the winning goal, talked to the media afterwards saying, “I’ve been saving it for a long time,” as he had missed breakaways and penalty shots with heartbreaking frequency. “I had the guy behind me, so I had to shoot. The more I played tonight, the better I felt. The first period my legs felt heavy, because I hadn’t skated for two days, not even this morning.”
Picard, who had scored the team’s first goal, said afterwards, “I had a little dizziness and the first couple of shots I wasn’t all there,” Picard said. “Once I got some skating in, I was all right. Today everybody gave 150 percent. And some of us who weren’t scoring last week, when Walt’s [Ryan Walter’s] line was carrying the team, helped out with the goals.”
The media talked to both Charron and Labre about the game, too.
Charron remarked, “Being here three years and coming so close, I know how much this means to the team.”
Meanwhile, Labre, who was an original Capital, spoke, “I remember all the times we outshot them and lost. It’s finally turning around.”
Most Caps fans hoped that Labre was right.
On this day in 1980, Washington defeated Montreal to end a 34-game winless streak against the Canadiens that dated back to when the Capitals joined the NHL #Hockey365 #ALLCAPS pic.twitter.com/0y05vNLDEJ
— Mike Commito (@mikecommito) February 19, 2020
By Diane Doyle