In February 1983, the Washington Capitals embarked on a road trip in Canada with stops in Edmonton, Calgary, and Montreal. One of their goals on this road trip was to clinch a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, an achievement that had eluded them throughout their history. On February 24, the Caps had a date with the Calgary Flames at the Stampede Corral in Calgary that would determine their fate.
The Caps held a record of 29-19-14 which had already tied their franchise record. The team was aiming to make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history and were very close to achieving that milestone with more than a month to go in the regular season.
The Flames, meanwhile, were 25-29-9, good enough for second place in the Smythe Division, 19 points behind the first place Edmonton Oilers, whom they had beaten just two days earlier.
The Capitals started Pat Riggin in goal against the Flames, having held him out of the prior day’s game against Edmonton, so that he would be rested for the Flames. The Flames countered with Don Edwards. The Capitals had acquired Riggin and defenseman Ken Houston from the Flames prior to the season, a trade that was incidentally made before David Poile left his position as Flames Assistant General Manager to take over as General Manager of the Caps. In late November, Washington acquired two more players from the Flames, forwards Randy Holt and Bobby Gould, for future considerations.
The Capitals were on the power play less than three minutes into the game, thanks to a Phil Russell penalty, but were unable to convert. This was followed by Gould and Carl Mokosak of Calgary earning high-sticking penalties during a puck battle, and Holt earned a roughing penalty in the same scrum, which put Calgary on a 4-on-3 power play, which was unsuccessful. Less than a minute after the penalties expired at the 8:55 mark, Capitals forward Alan Haworth scored his 16th goal of the season on an assist by Craig Laughlin. The Caps’ lead did not hold up through the first period, however, as Russell scored his 11th goal for the Flames just four minutes later on assists from Dave Hindmarch and Kari Eloranta. The score remained 1-1 going heading into the first intermission despite the fact the Caps had more penalties to kill, thanks to a tripping call to Haworth and a Too Many Men penalty, which carried over into the second period with the score still tied at 1-1.
The Capitals were able to kill the “Too Many Men” penalty assessed at the end of the first period. At 3:23, Jamie Macoun of Calgary was assessed a hooking penalty. This time the Caps converted on their man-advantage, as Haworth scored on the ensuing power play for his second goal of the game 41 seconds in, assisted by Bengt Gustafsson and Laughlin. Once again, the Capitals’ lead did not last, as at 12:45, Macoun scored his first goal of the year to tie the game for Calgary, 2-2; assists were credited to Kent Nilsson and Doug Risebrough. Less than a minute later, Phil Russell took his second penalty of the game putting the Capitals on another power play, which lasted 18 seconds before Timo Blomqvist scored his first goal of the season on assists from Gustafsson and Haworth, giving the Caps a 3-2 lead. With less than a minute to go in the period, Ken Houston was penalized for tripping, a penalty that would carry over into third period. The Capitals’ 3-2 lead held up going into the second intermission.
It did not take long for Haworth to complete the hat trick, as he notched his third of the night at 3:12, giving the Capitals an insurance goal and improving their lead’s margin to 4-2. For the rest of the period, both teams saw members of the lineup in the penalty box. Timo Blomqvist was penalized for hooking at 6:24, followed by Doug Risebrough being called for a high-sticking infraction, creating a brief 4-on-4 situation and a Caps power play (which was unsuccessful). At 15:23, the Capitals’ Ted Bulley got into a fight with Calgary’s Jim Jackson, with Bulley being assessed an additional roughing penalty. This set up a power play for Calgary, which the Caps were able to kill off. The 4-2 score held up through the remainder of the game and the Capitals clinched their first-ever playoff berth and won their 30th win of the season, a then-franchise record that would rise with each subsequent win they would earn that season.
Haworth was voted the game’s First Star after the hat trick. While certainly preoccupied with the hat trick, he was overjoyed the team clinched a playoff berth, saying to the media afterwards:
“Everybody is happy about it. But remember that this isn’t the team that didn’t make the playoffs all those years. This is a new hockey team that’s a winner. We wanted to prove to ourselves and to everybody else that we belong in this league. A lot of us came from teams that didn’t want us and now we’re enjoying the chance to show them they made a mistake.”
Riggin earned Third Star of the Game honors, stopping 26 shots. This victory was especially sweet as he had spent three seasons with the Flames, frequently feuding with management, media and fans. He had also hinted to the Capitals’ coaching staff that he wanted to play against the Flames.
Riggin spoke about the game, “The guys played really well for me. We played a lot more disciplined than they did. I hope I showed them that I can play on the road, that I can play anywhere in this league. I think maybe I’ve proved it for about the fifth time.”
Capitals Head Coach Bryan Murray spoke, “We expected to make the playoffs. I didn’t even tell the guys we could clinch a spot, although I’m sure most of them were aware of it. But we’re not just looking to get in. We’re looking to finish second and get home ice against the [New York] Islanders.”
Forward Dennis Maruk did not score any goals or record any assists in this game but was still overjoyed. Until now, he had played in more NHL games without making the playoffs than any other player and was the only 60-goal scorer never to be selected for a postseason All-Star Team and the only 50-goal scorer who had never appeared in a Stanley Cup Playoff game.
Maruk said after the game, “I haven’t contributed as much as I should this year, but I have a great feeling just the same. A lot of guys have to be proud. This team has played great. It’s the team that got us there, a 20-man effort, and now we’ll have to see how far we can go in the playoffs. We have 17 more games to go, but I’ll be thinking about that first one in the playoffs.”
The Capitals were hoping to win their next game in Montreal on February 26, given that several former Canadiens were on the team, including Rod Langway, Craig Laughlin, Brian Engblom, and Doug Jarvis, but they lost 4-1. Their record after their playoff-clinching game against Calgary was 9-6-2 and the ended the season with a record of 39-25-16 and finished in third place in the division, behind the Islanders and Philadelphia Flyers. As expected, they met the New York Islanders in the first round of the playoffs but lost to them in four games in a Best of Five.
By Diane Doyle