Caps fans know by now that a compilation of the ten greatest games in team history is now available on DVD. A great idea in concept, but we think it comes up a bit short on execution. There are only three games in that series that pre-date Alex Ovechkin’s arrival with the club, and only one from the “original” red-white-and-blue days. It also omits two of the most compelling games in Caps history, both four-overtime losses. So, with that in mind, we bring you The Peerless’ top ten. We even put a bonus selection in our anthology…
1. January 8, 1984 – Capitals Defeat the Flyers, 7-1.
Significance: Bengt Gustafsson scored five goals on five shots in Philadelphia against Flyer goalie phenom and fellow Swedish countryman Pelle Lindbergh. It was within one of the modern record for goals scored in a game (six), last reached by Darryl Sittler (in 1976), who was on the ice for the Flyers that night. The five goals would stand as a club record until Peter Bondra scored five in a game against the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1994. Sittler said afterward, "the game itself is one only Washington and Gustafsson will remember." We remember it, too.
2. April 18/19, 1987 – Happy Easter
Significance: The Capitals’ loss to the New York Islanders on Easter Sunday morning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals in four overtimes, 3-2, was one of the most gut-wrenching games in franchise history. It was the longest playoff game in Capitals history (and fifth longest in league history) to that time. Islander goalie Kelly Hrudey made 73 saves, a playoff single game record that still stands. New York had “only” 57 shots. Mike Ridley twice hit posts in the second period with the Caps leading 2-1; the Islanders tied the game with barely five minutes left in regulation. The Capitals were not shutout in that season, but they did not score a goal in the last 90:02 of that game. It was the first time the Caps appeared in a seventh game of a playoff series.
3. April 16, 1988 - A shot and a goal
Significance: It would be the first time the Caps had ever won a Game 7 of a playoff series, coming back from a three games to one deficit and a 3-0 deficit in Game 7. Philadelphia had a comeback of their own in that game, tying the contest after the Caps took a 4-3 lead early in the third period. But the game ended on what is probably the most famous call by a broadcaster in Caps history, by Mike Fornes… “…Murphy starts the rush… he hits Hunter…he’s in alone…a shot…and a goal!!!!!" Caps 5 – Flyers 4… Ron Hextall flat on his back staring into the rafters.
4. April 24/25, 1996 – The shot that couldn’t tear tissue paper
Significance: The longest game that the Caps have played to date came in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the Pittsburgh Penguins. It was a wild game that saw Mario Lemieux tossed from the game after earning slashing, instigator, fighting, and game misconduct penalties after having his sensibilities offended by Todd Krygier. Dale Hunter would get one of the more remarkable assists of his career, one-handing the puck from the seat of his pants at the top of the Penguin crease to Michal Pivonka. Joe Juneau would get two chances to win it – the first in the second overtime when he followed up his own shot and with the puck lying open in the crease, having a chance to sweep it the last six inches as he was about to skate around the net…he missed. The second chance came immediately thereafter when the Penguins were whistled for removing the net on the play. It was the first penalty shot in Stanley Cup overtime history. Juneau missed that one, too, as the deteriorating ice betrayed him, not giving Juneau the chance to settle the puck down before sending a weak shot at goalie Ken Wregget. In the fourth overtime, though, with the Caps killing a penalty late in the period, Petr Nedved stepped around defenseman Mark Tinordi and sent as harmless looking a shot as there was in this game toward Kolzig. He never saw it. The seeing-eye puck avoided several players screening Kolzig and fluttered over Kolzig’s left shoulder into the back of the net. The longest game in Capitals’ history was over at 179:16…a 3-2 loss.
5. June 4, 1998 – Caps defeat the Sabres in Game 6, Eastern Conference Final
Significance: The 3-2 overtime win propelled the Caps to the Stanley Cup final for the first – and only – time in club history. Oddly enough, the Caps won all three games played in Buffalo in that series, winning Game 3 (4-3 in overtime) and Game 4 (2-0). Three of the games of that six-game series went to overtime, the Caps winning all three. Only two games of that series were not one-goal games, and both were 2-0 shutouts, one for each team. In Game 6, Joe Juneau (the Caps’ leading playoff scorer that year) got the game/series-winner 6:20 into overtime and Olaf Kolzig stopped 39 of 41 shots for his 12th win of the playoffs against only five losses.
6. March 11, 2001 – Capitals erase three-goal third period deficit behind backup goalie
Signifiance: The Caps were playing the Eastern Conference leading Ottawa Senators at home and fell behind early, eventually trailing 5-2 at the second intermission. Coach Ron Wilson decided that with the result a foregone conclusion, he would rest Olaf Kolzig for the third period. That normally would have meant backup goalie Craig Billington getting the mop-up duty, but he was injured. The job fell to Corey Hirsch, just called up from Portland. Then Andrei Nikolishin scored a goal. Then, Trent Whitfield scored one. Then, Sergei Gonchar netted one to tie the game. Finally, with 1:28 left to play, Steve Konowalchuk made the comeback complete with a goal to give the Caps an improbable 6-5 win, and Corey Hirsch got the win by stopping all eight shots he faced in the final 20 minutes. It was the only appearance Hirsch would make for the Caps.
7. November 23, 2007 – Bruce Boudreau coaches his first game for the Caps
Significance: The Caps had just fired head coach Glen Hanlon – on Thanksgiving, no less – after compiling a 6-14-1 record and doing it in especially ugly fashion (scoring only 47 goals in their first 21 games, seven of those in one game against Toronto). The Caps raced out to a 3-0 lead midway through the second period, but the Flyers came back to tie the game on a goal by Mike Richards with just over four minutes left in regulation. In what would be a harbinger of good things to come, though, Alex Ovechkin set up Nicklas Backstrom for the game-winner less than two minutes into the extra session. The Caps would finish the year 37-17-7 and secure a playoff spot in one of the most remarkable in-season turnarounds in league history.
8. January 31, 2008 – Alex Ovechkin breaks nose, then breaks Montreal
Significance: The Caps and Canadiens were playing the second of a home-and-home series. Montreal shutout the Caps in the first half of the set, 4-0, behind goaltender Cristobal Huet in Montreal. Alex Ovechkin, who went into that game with 39 goals, said “he just stopped everything.” The second half of the set was different. The Caps jumped to a 3-0 lead behind a pair of goals by Ovechkin and one by Viktor Kozlov. But Ovechkin was paying a price. He already had a cut under his eye from a high stick in the previous game, but in this one he would get his nose broken when checked from behind into the boards by Montreal’s Francis Boullion, then would have his lip sliced by an errant puck. It didn’t stop him. He completed the hat trick 12:30 into the third period to give the Caps a 4-2 lead. But after squandering that lead, Ovechkin saved the day with a fourth goal 3:34 into overtime to give him 43 goals on his way to a 65-goal season and the Caps a 5-4 win.
9. April 5, 2008 – The comeback is complete
Significance: The Caps had accomplished a remarkable turnaround after changing coaches at Thanksgiving. But with 12 games remaining and coming off a crushing loss to Pittsburgh when Nicklas Backstrom scored into his own net in the final minute of a tied game, the Caps still found themselves seven points behind Carolina in the Southeast Division. The Caps then proceeded to win ten of their next 11 games, and with Carolina faltering just enough – losing their season finale to Florida on April 4th – the Caps were set up to clinch the Southeast Division title and a most improbably playoff spot with a win over those same Panthers. After exchanging early goals, the Caps put any doubt to rest on goals by Sergei Fedorov and Alexander Semin, and a 25-save effort by Cristobal Huet, obtained from Montreal at the trading deadline, in the 3-1 win.
10. May 4, 2009 – Dueling hat tricks
Significance: Counting the last three games of the first round playoff series, the Caps were on a four-game winning streak after taking Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Game 1 was a story of goaltending, as Semyon Varlamov stopped 34 of 36 saves (including the save of the year on Sidney Crosby with nothing but an open net in front of the shooter). Game 2 became a personal battle between the stars – Alex Ovechkin and Crosby. Crosby opened the scoring with a goal in the game’s seventh minute. Ovechkin matched him early in the second. Crosby one-upped him eight minutes later with his second goal. Ovechkin then called, then raised with two goals, the second coming with less than five minutes left to complete the hat trick. Good thing, too, because Crosby completed his own hat trick with a goal coming in the game’s last minute of a 4-3 Caps win. And for that, we can thank David Steckel, the only goal scorer in this game not named “Ovechkin” or “Crosby.”
Bonus selection: May 11, 2009 – So close, you can taste it
Significance: Game 6, Eastern Conference quarterfinal, and the Caps are down three games to two to the Penguins. And the Penguins can close out the series at home after dropping the first two games of the series to the Caps in Washington. Caps fans have heard it all… can’t win an elimination game, can’t win an elimination game on the road, Curse of the Penguin, blah blah blah. And it looked that way when the home team scored less than six minutes into the game. But Viktor Kozlov and Tomas Fleischmann scored in the second to give the Caps a lead… only to be leap-frogged when Mark Eaton scored late in the second, and Kris Letang scored early in the third. Then it was the Caps doing the leap-frogging, courtesy of goals by Brooks Laich and Kozlov again. This being a Penguin game, though, the home team would get the last laugh when Sidney Crosby scored with barely four minutes left. But was it the last laugh? David Steckel would deflect a Brooks Laich shot past Marc-Andre Fleury 6:22 into overtime for the game-winner, sending the series back to Washington, and atoning for missing an open net with the game on his stick in Game 5 that Pittsburgh would win in overtime.
OK, there are my ten. There are probably games you’d like to remove and replace (we struggled with putting in the March 20, 1987 game against the Penguins, for example, one won by the Caps 4-3, but perhaps best remembered as the night Bob Gould one-punched Mario Lemieux into happyland), but here is a start.