Building An Era of Improvement: A Look Back At the 1983-84 Washington Capitals Season

For many longtime Capitals fans, memories of the 1982-83 season, which saw the Washington Capitals become perennial Stanley Cup Playoff contenders, are likely still relatively fresh some 38 years later. In this look back, NoVa Caps’ Diane Doyle takes a look at the 1983-84 season, in which expectations for the team were raised from the previous season.

The hope for the Capitals for the 1983-84 season was that they would continue to improve as a team and go further in the playoffs. The prior season was the first season in franchise history in which the Washington Capitals made the playoffs, albeit having been eliminated in the first round. Still. the team had hope of improving with a relatively young core of players, and a promising Head Coach in Bryan Murray.

Offseason

David Poile, the Capitals’ General Manager at the time who had made the franchise’s most important trade the previous year, got to work on the above objective during the offseason. With the 1983 NHL Draft viewed by many as having less talent available in the first-round than previous drafts, Poile decided to trade the team’s first-round pick (14th overall) to the Winnipeg Jets in exchange for forward Dave Christian, who was a member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic team that captured the Gold Medal by upsetting the Soviet Union and then beating Czechoslovakia; the trade for Christian marked the first time the Caps had traded a first-round pick since 1979.

Poile said of the trade, “We made some good strides last year and I really didn’t want to trade our first-round pick, because you want to build on those (draft picks). Doing this may seem to be a contradiction, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a 24-year-old Dave Christian. Because of his versatility, he is more the type of player we want on the Capitals. He’s played every position except goaltender.”

Poile made two more trades during that offseason, trading high-scoring center Dennis Maruk to the Minnesota North Stars in exchange for a second=round pick in the 1984 NHL Entry Draft, and also traded tough guy Torrey Robertson to the Hartford Whalers for left wing, Greg Adams.

With most of the team’s core players aged 25 and under (Mike Gartner, Bengt Gustafsson, Bobby Carpenter, Scott Stevens, and newly-acquired Christian,) and some of the team’s “veterans” such as Doug Jarvis  (28) and Rod Langway (26) still in their primes, the team was expected to improve or, at the very least, remain in the mix as a contender.

Washington Post: Capitals Trade 1st Draft Pick to Jets for Dave Christian

October

In spite of higher expectations, the 1983-84 season did not start well at all for the Capitals, as they lost their first seven games, including an 8-7 loss to the New York Islanders in overtime. The club’s home opener was sparsely attended, with just 11,774 spectators and as of October 17, they were the only NHL team that had yet to win a game and even with the mediocrity of the previous nine seasons, was the team’s worst start ever.  The poor beginning to their first season following their premiere playoff appearance began to stir the thoughts of fans that the Caps had begun to revert to their 1970’s form.

Prompted by their poor start, Poile made a deal with the Los Angeles Kings on October 18, sending defenseman Brian Engblom and right winger Ken Houston to California in exchange for defenseman Larry Murphy, who the Kings had chosen fourth overall in the NHL Entry Draft in 1980. Although a defenseman, Murphy had averaged 20 goals and 70 points throughout his three-year tenure with Los Angeles. After the trade, the Caps won their next five games, making it seem as though a turnaround was in progress. After a win against the Flyers at home, they won the first four games of a five-game road trip that swung through Pittsburgh, New Jersey,  Minnesota, and Winnipeg. Their record at the end of October stood at 5-7.

Washington Post: Capitals First Overtime is 8-7 Loss to Islanders
Washington Post: Capitals Miseries Reach 0-6
A Gould-en Comeback — Retro Recap: Washington Capitals vs Winnipeg Jets – October 30, 1983

November

The Capitals began the second month of the season with a clobbering at the hands of the Edmonton Oilers, 11-3. They returned home to play the Vancouver Canucks on Friday, November 4, a contest that was attended by only 10,939 fans. Despite this, the game proved to a memorable game as it became the Caps’ very first overtime win in franchise history, with forward Bengt Gustafsson netting the game winner just over a minute into the contest. They won their next game two days later (November 6), beating the Detroit Red Wings by a score of 3-2. Both Christian and Bobby Carpenter scored and Langway netted the game winner early in the third period on the power play. Overall for the month, the Capitals did not have any winning streaks or losing streaks of note. They ended the month with a 6-6-1 record for the month, which pushed their record for the regular season to 11-13-1. One highlight during the month of November was beating the Montreal Canadiens 5-2 in Montreal on November 26 for the first time in franchise history.

Washington Post: Capitals Win 1st Game in Montreal

December

The month of December started off well with an 8-4 win over the New Jersey Devils at home. However, December was another month that featured no long winning streaks or long losing streaks for Bryan Murray’s team, limiting improvement. They were a respectable 7-6 1 for the month and their overall record for the regular season was 18-19-2. Thanks to their mediocre start, the Capitals’ attendance only averaged 10,249 and had yet to top 13,000 fans. Admittedly, the prior season’s attendance was aided by the “Save the Caps campaign”. Additionally, fans were more concerned with the Baltimore Orioles, who had won the World Series in 1983 and the Washington Redskins, who were doing very well at the time.

Capital Centre Gives Capitals That Empty Feeling

January

January was the month during which the Caps turned around their season and climbed out of mediocrity. They started the New Year with a 2-2 tie against the New York Rangers on January 2, then beat the St. Louis Blues by a decisive 5-1 score on January 5. While they lost their next game to the Buffalo Sabres on January 7, they followed that with a three-game winning streak, with all three of those wins coming on the road against the Philadelphia Flyers, the Los Angeles Kings, and the Vancouver Canucks. They won 7-1 against the Flyers on January 8 in a in which they scored seven unanswered goals, including five goals by Bengt Gustasson, which set a team record. Their win against the Los Angeles Kings on January 11 allowed them to finally exceed the .500 mark for the season. They lost 3-2 to the Calgary Flames to close that road trip, but won their next three games. They followed this up by tying the Buffalo Sabres on January 25, but won their next two games, both against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Their record for the month was 9-2-2 and their overall record was 27-21-4. The team now carried a six-game unbeaten streak going into the month of February.

February

In February, the Caps continued the winning streak that had begun in January. They won their first eight games of the month, ending with a 10-game winning streak, which was the longest in franchise history at the time. Their final win in the streak was a 4-2 win over the St. Louis Blues on February 18. The long streak of victories was followed by a three-game losing skid, with all three losses in the midst of a very long road trip of seven games. They broke the short losing streak with a road win against the Hartford Whalers that ended the long road trip, but lost at home to the Vancouver Canucks on February 28 to end the month on a bad note. The Capitals’ record for the month was 9-4-0 and their overall record was improved to 36-24-4.

From January 8 through February 18, the  Capitals had gone 16-1-1, their best sustained stretch of play since the franchise had begun play 10 years earlier. During that time frame the Capitals had scored more than three goals in 14 of those 18 games and had allowed more than three goals just once. They also outscored the opposition by a combined 90-32. They had outshot their opponents in 16 straight games, shattering the old club record of nine.

March/April

The month of March began very well for the Capitals. They reeled off a winning streak of six games, which started with a 9-1 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins at home, followed by a 5-1 victory at home against the New York Rangers. They followed this by traveling to Pittsburgh and winning again by a 5-2 score. The club then returned home to beat the Hartford Whalers and the Quebec Nordiques. This was followed by: a trip to Boston in which they beat the Bruins 2-1 for their sixth win in a row, a tie with the New Jersey Devils 3-3 on March 14, a victory over the New York Islanders on March 17, a loss to the St. Louis Blues on March 18, and a four-game win streak. The last game of the month  of March was a loss Their regular season record at the end of March stood at 47-27-5, while their record for the month was 11-3-1.

They played just one more regular season game, a 4-1 victory against the Philadelphia Flyers. Their final record for the 1983-84 regular season was 48-27-5, finishing three points behind the New York Islanders for the Patrick Division title.

Wash Post: A Key Night for the Capitals
Saturday Night Regional Rivalry — Retro Recap: Washington Capitals vs New York Rangers — March 3, 1984
Wash Post: Murray Employs History and Psychology to Motivate Capitals
NHL.com: Caps History 1983-84 Team Notched 101 Points

1984 Stanley Cup Playoffs

First Round

With the Caps finishing second in the Patrick Division and the Flyers finishing third, the two teams were seeded to meet in the first round of the 1984 Stanley Cup Playoffs (the Patrick Division Semi-Finals) which was at that time, a Best of Five series (the NHL switched the first round to a Best of 7 starting in the 1987 postseason).

The Capitals won the first contest 4-2 in a game that was tied 2-2 after two periods, which was followed by Gaetan Duchesne and Mike Gartner both scoring third period goals to push Washington to a win. Game 2 was more decisive. Like the first game, the second game was tied 2-2 after two periods, however, the Capitals scored four unanswered goals in the third period to win 6-2.  For the third game, the two teams traveled to Philadelphia, with the first game in the City of Brotherly Love taking a different sequence of events. The Capitals struck for five goals during the first two periods and gave up one to the Flyers during the third period, for a final score of 5-1 that secured a Capitals’ sweep of the best of five series and advanced the team to the second round, where they would play the New York Islanders.

Capitals Sweep into Stanley Cup Second Round

Second Round

During the regular season, the Islanders had posted a record of 50-26-4 and 104 standings points and finished first in the Patrick Division and entered the postseason aiming for their fifth consecutive Stanley Cup Championship. The Islanders met the New York Rangers in the first round and beat them three games to two games.

The Capitals started off the series by winning the first game 3-2. But after this, it was an all Islanders series. In Game 2, the Islanders won 5-4 in Overtime, won Game 3 by a 3-1 score, Game 4 by a 5-2 score, and Game 5, 5-3.

After beating the Capitals in the Patrick Division Finals, they played the Montreal Canadiens in the Conference Finals and beat them in six games, before losing to the Edmonton Oilers in the Stanley Cup Final in a series that lasted five games.

Capital Force Overtime But Islanders Get Even
Islanders Seem to Thrive on Overtime
Capitals On the Brink of Vacation
Capitals Waste No Time Signing Coach Brian Murray to Contract Extension

Conclusion

In the category of individual statistics, the Caps had seven players who scored 20 or more goals. The team leader was Mike Gartner with 40 goals. while Bengt Gustafsson scored 32 goals for second on the team (Dave Christian with 29 goals and Bobby Carpenter with 28 goals came very close to the 30-goal threshold). Alan Haworth, Bobby Gould, and Craig Laughlin all also topped 20 goals. Christian, meanwhile, topped the team in assists with 52. Gartner, Gustafsson, and Carpenter all topped 40 assists, while four other players topped 30. Gartner was the team leader in points with 85, with Christian following close behind with 81.

The 1983-84 Washington Capitals may not have made it to the Stanley Cup Finals or had 50 wins, but they are still one of the greatest teams that Washington has ever put on the ice because they were first to reach a number of milestones in franchise history. They were the first Capitals team to win 40 games (48), and the first to eclipse the 100-point mark (101). They were also the first Capitals team to win a playoff series, sweeping the Flyers in three straight. And perhaps most importantly for the first time, after many years of futility, the Washington Capitals were a real contender for the Stanley Cup. Even after the sad end to the season, they knew they had a great coach in Bryan Murray and wasted no time signing him to a contract extension when the season ended.

By Diane Doyle

 

About Diane Doyle

Been a Caps fan since November 1975 when attending a game with my then boyfriend and now husband.
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