The Washington Capitals and New York Rangers have long been rivals. Over the nearly 46 seasons the Capitals have been in the league, the two Eastern Conference teams have met multiple times during the regular season and playoffs. This latest Retro Recap recalls a game from late February, 1985.
Going into the game on February 28, the Capitals had a record of 37-16-9 and were battling with the Philadelphia Flyers for the Patrick Division lead, with the New York Islanders also in the mix.
The Rangers were having a down season, compared to the prior year, and were going into the game with a record of 20-31-9. They had just fired Head Coach, Herb Brooks, the previous month and replaced him with Craig Patrick.
The goalie matchup that night was Pat Riggin for the Caps against John Vanbiesbrouck for the Rangers. The 1984-85 season was Vanbiesbrouck’s rookie season, but he had already established himself as an NHL regular. He would be a fixture for the team through the 1992-93 season.
Rod Langway, the Caps’ star defenseman, was absent from the game due to the flu.
The game was scoreless until just under eight minutes into the contest. Defenseman Willie Huber of the Rangers pressed his way into the left circle and sent a slapshot past goalie Riggin for his third goal of the season, getting assists from Dan Maloney and Mike Rogers.
At 10:46, Tom Laidlaw took a tripping penalty to put the Capitals on the power play, however, the Caps couldn’t take advantage. But a minute after the power play expired, the Caps tied the score at 1-1 when Scott Stevens scored his sixteenth goal of the season, getting assists from Bobby Gould and Dean Evason.
With four seconds left in the period, Barry Beck, the Rangers’ Captain at the time, collided with Gaetan Duchesne along the boards and suffered a severe gash under his right eye that required 30 stitches. Beck was taken to Lenox Hill Hospital for treatment.
The second period was a rather chippy period that was full of penalties and full of goals. At 5:29, Willie Huber cross checked one of the Caps to earn a trip to the penalty box. Nearly 30 seconds later, Mike Gartner scored his 40th goal of the season on the ensuing power play. He was assisted by Scott Stevens and Craig Laughlin. The Caps now had a 2-1 lead.
Over a minute later, at 7:19, Bengt Gustafsson added his seventh goal of the season which was unassisted. The Caps now led 3-1.
However, the lead didn’t last through the period. At 12:33, Mike Gartner was penalized for hooking and Ron Greschner scored his thirteenth goal of the season on the resulting power play. He was assisted by Mark Pavelich and Reijo Ruotsalainen. Less than three minutes later, at 16:12, Anders Hedberg tied the game for the Rangers with his fourteenth goal of the season. He was assisted by James Patrick.
At 17:16, Robbie Ftorek of the Rangers and Bobby Gould earned matching slashing penalties, setting up a 4 on 4 situation. Just 7 seconds later, Grant Ledyard tripped one of the Caps and was penalized, which put the Caps on a 4 on 3 power play. At 18:05, Mike McEwen shot the puck from just above the left circle which travelled between the legs of defenseman James Patrick and finally between the wide-opened legs of Vanbiesbrouck to put the Caps ahead, 4-3. That was the score going into second intermission.
The first half of the final period was relatively quiet. But then Ron Greschner earned a tripping penalty at 9:38, which put the Caps on the power play. On this power play, Mike Gartner scored his second goal of the game and his 41st goal of the year for an insurance goal. He got assists from Larry Murphy and Bobby Carpenter. The Caps now led 5-3.
It turned out the Caps needed that particular insurance goal. At 17:39, Mike Rogers scored his 22nd goal of the season for the Rangers to narrow the gap to 5-4. George McPhee, who later became the Capitals’ General Manager, and Ron Greschner had the assists.
The Caps held on to win the game, 5-4, improving their record to 38-16-9. They had pulled ahead of the Philadelphia Flyers, who had lost 6-1 to the Boston Bruins that same day, and were now in first place.
Since that game, the Caps went 8-9-0 to finish in second place in the Patrick Division and made the playoffs for their second consecutive season. They had the same number of standings points as they did the prior season with 101 points, but two less wins and four more ties.
The Flyers lost their next two games after losing to the Bruins on February 28. But then the Flyers got really hot. They lost just one game for the remainder of the regular season, which included two straight games against the Caps in early March.
The Caps met the New York Islanders in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs and were eliminated in five games. The Flyers won the first three rounds of their playoffs and went on to meet the Edmonton Oilers in the Stanley Cup Final where they lost.
The game of February 28 placed the Caps in first place in the division, but in the end, it was a lead they could not hold for the rest of the year.
By Diane Doyle