Under normal circumstances in most seasons, assuming no lockout, strike, or pandemic, the NHL in mid-November would be just over a month into the regular season. This post looks at a Washington Capitals’ game against the Montreal Canadiens on November 15, 1997. At that point in the 1997-98 season, Montreal had gotten off to an amazing start to their season while the Caps had gotten off to a good but not great start.
The Capitals traveled to the Molson Centre for the last game of a four-game road trip. Going into the game, the Caps held a record of 11-7-2, in a season in which they had started off very well but had tailed off in late October; the team had won their last two contests in a row coming into their matchup against the Habs. The Canadiens, meanwhile, had gotten off to a great start, holding a record of 13-4-2, and were riding a seven-game winning streak, while owning the best record in the Eastern Conference at that time.
Capitals forward Chris Simon returned to game action against the Canadiens after serving a three-game suspension as a result of directing a racial slur towards Mike Grier of the Edmonton Oilers on November 8. Simon spoke of the suspension, saying, “Sitting out was difficult with what happened, but it was better that I wasn’t playing. It would have been real tough. This way, I had time to sit and think about what happened and now I can make sure it never happens again.”
Then-Capitals Head Coach Ron Wilson also chose to keep callup Benoit Gratton in the lineup for the game, as he had 15 family members attending the game, having grown up 15 minutes outside of Montreal. Wilson said that Gratton had earned his spot in the lineup for his recent play.
The Caps got off to a good start when less than four minutes into the contest, Adam Oates scored his seventh goal of the year, taking the rebound from a shot by defenseman Mark Tinordi. Peter Bondra added a power play goal, his 11th goal of the season at 12:37 to increase the Caps’ lead to 2-0 on assists from Calle Johansson and Simon. Johansson tried to score on a breakaway, but his shot was saved by Habs’ goaltender Jocelyn Thibault. Soon after Johansson’s attempt, Capitals starter Olaf Kolzig made a spectacular save on a shot by Canadiens forward Mark Recchi in the low right corner of the net. The Capitals’ lead remained at 2-0 heading into the first intermission.
In the second period, the Canadiens had seven shots on goal in the first five minutes of the period, forcing Kolzig to work hard. The period also featured a minor penalty for each team, with Washington defenseman Brendan Witt taking a tripping penalty at 6:37, followed by Martin Rucinsky of the Canadiens taking a holding penalty. The score was still 2-0 in favor of the Caps going into second intermission, in spite of the fact that the Canadiens outshot the Capitals by a margin of 15-5.
Unlike the start of the game, the final frame started off less-than stellar for the visiting Capitals. Marc Bureau scored at the 2:32 mark for the Canadiens, narrowing the Caps’ lead to 2-1. Fortunately for Washington, Peter Bondra responded less than two minutes later with his second goal of the game and 12th of the year. Patrice Brisbois attempted to pass to Saku Koivu but Chris Simon intercepted it. Simon then joined Bondra on a wide-open rush. Just before reaching the net, Simon passed to Bondra who shot it past Thibault on the right side. Soon after the midpoint of the period, at 11:13, Vincent Damphouse scored for Montreal to narrow the Capitals’ lead to 3-2. With just under four minutes to go, the Canadiens had a potential game-tying goal by defenseman Stephan Quintal disallowed during a goal-mouth scramble. During the melee, referee Don Koharski lost sight of the puck and blew the play dead. The Capitals ended up holding on to their 3-2 lead for the remainder of the game. It was their third win in a row on a four-game road trip.
Kolzig made 33 saves on 35 shots. and discussed the disallowed goal following the game, saying, “I had it under my stick and then heard the whistle. Then I saw it jump over my stick after that, so I knew it wasn’t a goal. The rest of the period, I was just focused on keeping the puck out of the net.”
Capitals Head Coach Ron Wilson said after the game, “We were a little on our heels [in the second period], but after that I was pleased with our play. In the third period we had poor coverage coming back and chased the puck, but then we rebounded. We were holding on a little towards the end and we needed some big saves, but all in all, you win three in a row at the end of a road trip, you’re happy to win.”
Bondra also spoke after the game, “We kept it simple and we had a good game. I’ve been playing better defensively and have been more aggressive, and I’ve gotten some good plays from my teammates.”
By Diane Doyle