Photo: Doug Pensinger /Allsport
The Capitals game on December 5, 1997 against the Florida Panthers was the very first game played at MCI Center, their brand new arena located in the heart of downtown Washington DC. After spending nearly 25 years at their original location in suburban Maryland, the late Abe Pollin decided it was time to move both the Capitals and the Wizards downtown and into a more state-of-the-art facility.
The game was a sellout. The audience included then-Vice President Al Gore and his wife Tipper. In addition, 42 former Capitals players were also in attendance. The players donned team sweaters with their familiar names and numbers and were introduced individually to great applause during the first intermission.
The 42 alumni then skated a lap around the new ice sheet and waved to the capacity crowd. Among the alumni was Bryan “Bugsy” Watson who then was proprietor of a bar in Alexandria, Virginia called Bugsy’s.
For the game itself, the Caps found themselves shorthanded in personnel. Top scorer Peter Bondra was sidelined with a bruised ankle. Other injured players included: Michal Pivonka, Mike Eagles, Yogi Svejkovsky, Andrei Nikolishin, and Pat Peake.
In fact, the Caps only had 16 healthy skaters at the prior day’s practice. Assistant coach Tim Hunter filled in and took a right wing spot on one of the lines, but only until he limped off with a bruised left leg sustained after he was struck by an errant puck.
Going into the game, the Caps had a record of 14-10-4, were fifth in the Eastern Conference and third in the Atlantic Division despite the fact they played 18 of their first 28 games on the road.
It was their first game at home since November 26, a 5-6 loss that took place at their last game at U.S. Air Arena. The Panthers, meanwhile, were 8-15-4.
This was the first time that the Caps faced their former head coach, Bryan Murray, since he became Florida’s head coach. Murray was the Panthers’ general manager at the time, but he took over the team’s bench duties about two weeks prior to the opening of the MCI Center.
The game did not begin well for the Caps as Steve Washburn of the Panthers opened the scoring for the game. He was assisted by defensemen Paul Laus and Rhett Warren. During the period, the Panthers outshot the Caps 11-2. The Capitals registered one shot at the 1:30 mark and one more at 19:58. Overall, they looked very tentative in the period.
Richard Zednik scored his eighth goal of the year to knot the score at 1-1 a little over twelve minutes into second period. He was assisted by Steve Konowalchuk, who had passed him the puck via a crossing pass, and Jan Bulis.
Mark Tinordi took two penalties almost 15 minutes into the period and put the Caps shorthanded for four minutes, with an interference penalty and also an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Fortunately, the Caps killed off both penalties. The score remained 1-1 when it was time for second intermission.
Early in the period, Chris Simon had slammed head first into the boards and required medical attention. Ultimately, he was able to continue play. About a minute and a half into the third period, Gord Murphy of Florida was assessed with an interference penalty. Just eight seconds into the ensuing power play, Chris Simon scored, thanks to a centering pass from Joe Juneau. Phil Housley had the secondary assist. The Caps were in the lead for the first time at MCI Center.
But after Jeff Toms, a recent waiver pickup, was penalized for tripping three minutes later, Robert Svehla of the Panthers scored the equalizer on the resulting power play from a wrist shot. He was assisted by Ray Sheppard and Ray Whitney. The score was now 2-2.
At 8:15, both Joe Juneau of the Caps and Rhett Warrener of the Panthers got into a scrum and both earned high sticking penalties. Neither team scored on the resulting 4 on 4 situation.
When both teams returned to full strength, Ken Klee earned a match penalty for attempt to injure and was ejected from the game. This put the Caps on a five minute penalty kill. The Caps, fortunately, were able to kill this extended penalty as well.
Towards the end of that penalty killing, Dave Gagner of Florida was assessed a penalty for interference which results in a 4 on 4 situation and a brief power play for the Caps. However, no scoring followed, as a result. The game was still tied 2-2 at the end of regulation and proceeded to Overtime.
The Caps actually gained momentum during the overtime and scored on their sixth shot. Jeff Toms had a breakaway at 3:32 in Overtime and scored. He had poked the puck away from Laus at the blueline and then blew by him to create a two-on-one with Dale Hunter. He held the puck for an instant, waiting for goalie John Vanbiesbrouck to commit, before taking the scoring shot.
The Caps, thus, sent the capacity crowd, home happy. The new arena appeared to be good luck for their new tenant. The Caps had picked up Toms just about two weeks earlier after the Tampa Bay Lightning had put him on waivers.
Toms talked to the media after the game, “We got a bounce at the blueline and then I used my speed to beat [Florida defenseman Paul] Laus. Being picked up by Washington is the best thing that’s ever happened in my career.”
Head Coach Ron Wilson spoke of Laus’ game winner, “He proved my practices don’t mean a damn thing. This is the best feeling in the world when you win in overtime – the other team doesn’t have a chance to tie it. It’s an exhilarating feeling. Jeff Toms has been really working hard since he’s been here, and to get rewarded like that the first night in this building is something he’ll always remember.”
The win for the Caps was their second consecutive Overtime win. Just three days earlier, they had beaten the New York Rangers by a 3-2 score.
The Caps played the same team two days later in Florida but lost 5-4. They did not win against until December 20, when they beat the Carolina Hurricanes2-1 on December 20. Ultimately, the season as a whole was more successful for the Capitals as they advanced to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in team history/
Box Score for Game of 12/5/1997
NHL.Com: Toms OT Game Winner Capped New Arena Opening
Capitals Com: This Date in Caps History December 5
Washington Post: Caps Have a Star For Their New Stage
WTOP: Washington Capitals Celebrate 20 Seasons Downtown Arena
By Diane Doyle