Having provided an overview of the Washington Capitals history in the old “Patrick Division” as they embark on a new history in the “Metropolitan Division” of the NHL – a division largely made up of those old Patrick Division teams – we will take a look back at the individual rivalries from years gone by that will be renewed come this fall. First up… the New York Islanders.
By the time the Washington Capitals faced the New York Islanders as a Patrick Division rival for the first time on December 22, 1979, the Caps first season in the division was pretty much over. The Caps trudged into Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on the Saturday before Christmas carrying a 7-21-5 record. It had been more than a month since the Caps had their only two-game winning streak of the season to date. On this night they had a chance to make it their second such streak, having defeated the Vancouver Canucks at Capital Centre the night before.
That second two game winning streak would have to wait, though. The Islanders, who were struggling themselves with an 11-13-6 record, eked out a 2-1 win. Not that such a result was uncommon. Before these clubs found themselves thrown together in the Patrick Division, the Caps compiled an overall 1-16-3 record (that is not a misprint) against the Islanders.
That misfortune would continue for the Caps in the early history of this rivalry. They posted a record of 7-23-2 against the Islanders from December 1979 through November 1984 and were outscored over that span of games by a 135-94 margin (2.94 goals for per game, 4.22 goals against). Of course, this was also the era in which the Islanders would appear in five straight Stanley Cup finals, winning four straight from 1980 through 1983 and losing in the 1984 finals.
And for those of you Caps fans of recent vintage who might be impressed with the likes of current star islander John Tavares, the Caps had to deal with the likes of Mike Bossy and Brian Trottier during this winning drought. Bossy, who would record nine straight 50-plus goal seasons from 1977-1978 through 1985-1986, recorded three hat tricks against the Caps in that 7-23-2 run. Trottier had one of his own, and as if for good measure Duane Sutter had another.
And that brings us to the Sutters. In the 1970’s and 1980’s six brothers who grew up in Viking, Alberta (fittingly) would dress for NHL teams. All of them were on an NHL roster from 1982-1983 through 1986-1987. Two of them – Duane and Brent – would dress for the Islanders as part of their Patrick Division rivalry with the Caps. They had reputations as good players – Brent had 363 goals over an 18-year career, and Duane recorded 342 points over an 11-year career. But as much as that, they had a knack for bring out the best – or worst – in opponents…
After that 7-23-2 run to start the Patrick Division phase of the Capitals-Islanders rivalry, things got a lot better for Washington. From December 27, 1984 until the Patrick Division was disbanded after the 1992-1993 season, the Caps posted a 35-22-4 regular season record against the Islanders, including a nine-game winning streak that straddled the 1990-1991 and 1991-1992 seasons.
Part of that was a changing of the guard in goal. Billy Smith was the number one goalie in each of the five straight Stanley Cup appearances that ended with the 1984 post-season. However, his workload started to diminish after that 1984 post-season. Until then he was typical of the Islander penchant for feistiness. If there was one word to describe his style in goal during his heyday, it would be “ornery.” From 1979-1980 through the 1983-1984 seasons, Smith compiled more penalty minutes (160 in 208 games) than any other goaltender, and it was not close. Pete Peeters was second over that period with 124 penalty minutes in 236 games. He was a guy who was not afraid to mix it up with players who got close enough to annoy him.
However, with the 1984-1985 season most of the workload ended up with Kelly Hrudey, who would record more appearances for the Islanders from that season until the Patrick Division was disbanded in 1993-1994 than any other Islander goalie. Hrudey would play a crucial role in the Caps-Isles rivalry in the post-season, but we get ahead of ourselves a bit.
In their Patrick Division years the Caps faced the Islanders in the playoffs more often than they did any other team. By and large, it was not a pleasant history for the Caps or their fans. The Isles were the first playoff opponent in franchise history for the Caps, the teams meeting in the Patrick Division semi-finals in 1983. The Caps earned a split in the first two games of the five-game series, those games being played on Long Island. The Caps’ 4-2 win in Game 2 to send the series back to Washington tied a game apiece seemed to get the Islanders’ attention. The Islanders made short work of the Caps in Landover, winning Game 3 by a 6-2 margin, then closing out the Caps in Game 4 by a 6-3 score. The Islanders would go on to win their fourth straight Stanley Cup.
It would be the Islanders who would end the Caps’ season the following spring when, after the Caps swept the Philadelphia Flyers in three games for their first post-season series win, the Isles ousted the Caps in five games after dropping the opening game of the series. It looked as if the Caps might finally solve the Islanders when they met in the division semi-finals in 1985 when the Caps won Games 1 and 2, both in overtime. However, in what would become a too-often repeated trend in Capitals playoff history, they could not close out their opponent. The Isles won the last three games of the series, getting the clincher on Capitals home ice (the start of another disturbing playoff trend).
Even when the Islanders did not beat the Caps in the playoffs, they would influence the Caps’ final outcome. On March 28, 1986, in the teams’ last meeting of the regular season at Capital Centre, Bengt-Åke Gustafsson suffered a broken right leg when he was tripped by Islander defenseman Denis Potvin. Gustafsson was on his way to setting a career high in points, but his season ended on that night (he finished with 75 points, tied for his career best). Not only would he miss the rest of the 1985-1986 season, but he would sit out the following season as well (he skated for Bofors IK in Sweden for the 1986-1987 season). His absence has not so keenly felt when the Caps swept the Islanders in the first round of the 1986 Stanley Cup playoffs, but it might have been when the Caps were upset by the New York Rangers in the division finals, four games to two.
All that was prelude to what perhaps stands to this day as the single most heartbreaking loss in franchise history. There are not many NHL games that have their own Wikpedia page, but the “Easter Epic” does. The Patrick Division semi-finals in 1987 pitted these two teams against one another, and it was the Caps who looked as if they would make quick work of the Islanders. Washington won three of the first four games of the series, allowing the Islanders only seven goals in the four games. The Islanders spent those first four games either shooting themselves in the foot or having it done to them. As to the latter, the Isles lost leading goal scorer Mike Bossy (in what would be his last season) for the last two weeks of the regular season to a back injury. He returned for this series but injured a knee in a 3-1 Islander win in Game 2. He joined Brent Sutter, who had been nursing a groin strain for the past month, on the bench. With regard to the former, the Islanders whiffed on a chance to tie the series at home in Games 3 and 4 when they managed a total of one goal in six periods of hockey against Caps netminder Bob Mason, who substituted for Pete Peeters, who split Games 1 and 2 in Washington. The Isles performance at home left the fans in Uniondale displeased. On top of that, the Caps would host two of the last three games of the series in Washington, if it came to that.
Peeters returned to the net for the Caps in Game 5, but despite the Caps outshooting the Isles by a 42-24 margin, the Caps lost in Landover, 4-2. It was back to Mason for Game 6 on Long Island, but he could not repeat his stellar performance in Games 3 and 4, the Caps losing, 5-4, to force a seventh game.
Mason got the call in Game 7 for the Caps, Hrudey doing the same as he had done for all six games of the series to that point. A lot of words have been written about that game, from simple descriptions to perspectives from the players and officials. Numbers told a story, too…
36-21… The Caps outshot the Islanders by this margin in regulation but could not find the back of the net in the last 21:15 of regulation play.
3… Only three power plays were awarded in more than six full periods of hockey, only one of them coming in extra time, an Islander power play when Greg Adams was sent off for a misconduct penalty 16:47 into the second overtime. It was the last penalty called in the game.
0… The Capitals had not been shut out all season heading into Game 7. However, they did not score a goal in the last 90:02 of the contest.
73… Kelly Hrudey stopped 73 of 75 shots on goal in the 128:47 of total playing time. The 73 saves still stands as an NHL record for saves in a playoff game.
128:47… More than two full games of time, this Game 7 remains the longest Game 7 in the history of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
But more than the numbers, there was the sound of puck hitting iron and a silent arena…
Pat LaFontaine did everything right… when defenseman Gord Dineen circled behind the Caps net with the puck, LaFontaine covered for him at the blue line. When Dineen’s shot was blocked, there was LaFontaine to keep the puck in the offensive zone. Realizing the situation, that there is no bad shot to take in this situation, LaFontaine spun and fired. But even with having done everything right, it took a nod from the hockey gods to bring this game to a finish. The puck might have been deflected ever so slightly by the stick of Rod Langway, who was set up in front of the Caps’ net. The puck still had to elude Dale Henry screening Mason. Then, after eluding the screened Mason, who never saw the shot, the puck hit the post to Mason’s left. Instead of caroming out, it settled into the back of the net, the Islanders a 3-2 winner in the fourth overtime.
The Caps would play one more playoff series against the Islanders as Patrick Division rivals. Perhaps fittingly, it was the last playoff series the Caps would play as a member of the Patrick Division. In the division semi-finals in 1993 the Caps would find themselves just short at just about every turn in the series. After taking Game 1 at Capital Centre, Washington lost each of the next three games in overtime. The Caps came back to win Game 5 at home, 6-4, but succumbed to the Islanders on Long Island in Game 6, 5-3.
Caps fans of long standing will note as well that it was in that Game 6 of that last series in which one of the ugliest moments in Capitals playoff history unfolded…
It would result in what was for Dale Hunter, at the time, the longest suspension in NHL history (21 games, served at the start of the following season) since the Boston Bruins’ Billy Coutu was suspended for life for assaulting on-ice officials and instigating a bench-clearing brawl in the 1927 Stanley Cup playoffs. The Islanders, who would defeat the Caps in their first Patrick Division playoff series, would be the club that would repeat the result in the Caps’ last Patrick Division playoff series.
As much as the contemporary Capitals are defined in their rivalry against the Pittsburgh Penguins, their Patrick Division rivalry with the New York Islanders in the 1980's and early 1990's might have been more intense. For most of the 14 seasons that they shared a Patrick Division address, the Islanders were the club that frustrated the Caps most often in the games that mattered.