Sunday, August 11, 2013

Washington Capitals: Rivalries Reborn -- The "MetroPatrick" Division, Part IV: New York Rangers

After getting in touch with our inner Patrick Division memories with looks at the New York Islanders and the Philadelphia Flyers, we head back up I-95 to take a look back at the Patrick Division years spent battling the New York Rangers.

On October 14, 1979, Wayne Gretzky recorded his first National Hockey League goal.  That same night, the Philadelphia Flyers won their game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, starting what would be (and what remains) an NHL record 35-game unbeaten streak.

One might forgive the fact that the Washington Capitals’ first meeting with the New York Rangers as Patrick Division rivals did not get a lot of attention.  Not that this first-ever meeting was without its moments.  It was the night that the Rangers retired the jersey of Rod Gilbert  (number “7” for those keeping score).  The Capitals own number “7,” defenseman Yvon Labre, was involved in two fights, one of them with future hall of famer Phil Esposito (it would be Esposito’s last fight in his NHL career).  As for the hockey portion of the evening, Dennis Maruk scored four goals, three of them coming in a span of 6:57 in the second period, and the Caps ruined the Rangers’ celebration with a 5-3 win.

That was the first of what would be 95 regular season contests between the Caps and the Rangers when they shared a Patrick Division address from 1979-1993.  The Caps had the advantage in those years, posting a 46-40-9 record against the Blueshirts, 24-19-5 at home and 22-21-4 on the road.  It was a remarkably back-and-forth rivalry over those 14 seasons.  Only three times did the Caps enjoy winning streaks of more than three games against the Rangers.  Only once did the Rangers have a winning streak as long as four games.  In addition to the nine ties these teams recorded, there were 29 one-goal games, the Caps going 15-14 in those contests.

The rivalry was especially close in the early years.  From that October 1979 first-ever meeting through the 1983-1984 season, the Caps were 9-10-5 against the Blueshirts and could not muster consecutive wins against the Rangers over that 24-game stretch.  However, with the 1984-1985 season the Caps opened up some ground on the Rangers in the rivalry.  After dropping the first two contests of the season against New York, the Caps beat the Rangers five times in a row, outscoring them by a 24-11 margin.  It would be the start of a 14-7-1 run for the Caps that would be the most dominating period for either team in the Patrick Division era of the rivalry.

This part of the era would be memorable for other things, though.  In the 1985-1986 season the Caps and Rangers split the season series with three wins for each club plus a tie in the seven games.  But the Caps finished the regular season with a club record 50 wins and 107 standings points.  The Rangers, on the other hand, nearly fell out of playoff contention when they finished the regular season with a 7-12-2 record in their last 21 games.  They finished the regular season fourth in the Patrick Division, just two points ahead of fifth-place Pittsburgh.

In the Patrick Division semi-finals the Caps were making short work of the New York Islanders, sweeping them in three games in their best-of-five series.  The Rangers were in a death match with the Philadelphia Flyers, finally emerging with a 5-2 in in Game 5 of their series.  That left the Caps and Rangers to battle to be the Patrick Division representative in the Prince of Wales Conference final.

The Caps were the favorite to advance.  They had five players finish the regular season with more points than the Rangers’ leading scorer, Mike Ridley.  They averaged almost half a goal more per game on offense than the Rangers.  They were getting healthy, with Mike Gartner and Bobby Carpenter getting back on track after knee injuries.  They had the coach with experience in Bryan Murray, who earned his 200th win as coach of the Caps that season.  The Rangers had a rookie head coach – Ted Sator.  The Caps finished 29 points ahead of the Rangers in the regular season and were rested after their sweep of the Islanders.

In Game 1 at Capital Centre, the Caps picked up where they left off (they did not trail at any point in their series against the Islanders), skating out to a 3-1 lead.  But the Caps allowed a shorthanded goal (they allowed the fewest such goals in the regular season) to halve the lead, then allowed a goal by Mike Ridley to tie the game.  Brian MacLellan scored the game-winner in overtime on a breakaway to give the Rangers a 1-0 lead in games.

The Caps treated the loss like a speed bump, winning Game 2 by an 8-1 margin (the goals scored setting a playoff game scoring record for the club that stands to this day), Alan Haworth and Gaetan Duchesne each scoring a pair of goals and the Caps chasing goalie John Vanbiesbrouck in favor of Glen Hanlon.

Game 3 was not a lot different, even if the venue was.  The series shifted to Madison Square Garden where the Caps got another pair of two-goal performances in a 6-3 win, Bobby Carpenter and John Barrett doing the damage.

At that point, folks might have thought the rout was on, that the Rangers would go quick and quiet.  However, the Rangers salvaged a split in New York when they got a late goal from Bob Brooke to tie Game 4 at 5-5, then got the game-winner in overtime from Brooke to tie the series.

Losing in overtime after twice having two-goal leads, including a 5-3 lead in the third period, appeared to flummox the Caps.  The Caps took a 2-0 lead in Game 5 at Capital Centre, then yielded the last four goals of the contest to enable the Rangers to take a 3-2 series lead back to Madison Square Garden. 

In Game 6 it was the Rangers who got out to a 2-0 lead, an advantage they took into the third period.  Bobby Carpenter scored at 5:38 of the period to get the Caps to within a goal, but that was as close as they would get.  The Rangers held on, leaving Caps head coach Bryan Murray to recognizewhat was lost:  "It's kind of hard to swallow a series loss like this when we had the greatest chance in the history of the franchise . . . an opportunity to win.”

Less than a year later, the clubs made noise off the ice.  It started in Washington where there was a growing rift between head coach Bryan Murray and Bobby Carpenter over where Carpenter was positioned.  Murray chose to deploy Carpenter as a left wing instead of center, the position at which he played most often to that point.  Things got bad enough in the dispute over position that Carpenter’s production plummeted.  After 22 appearances in his second season removed from scoring 53 goals, Carpenter had only five goals.  Carpenter met with general manager David Poile in November, the result of which was that Carpenter agreed to the club’s making an effort to trade him.  At that point, Poile also informed Carpenter that his services were no longer required by the club and that he should not attend practices.

Carpenter was traded to the Rangers on New Year’s Day, 1987.  He, along with a 1989 second-round draft choice, was sent up I-95 in exchange for Mike Ridley, Kelly Miller, and Bob Crawford.  Carpenter would last barely two months in New York, traded in March to the Los Angeles Kings with Tom Laidlaw for Jeff Crossman, Marcel Dionne and a 1989 third-round draft pick.  Crawford would play in only 12 games for the Caps without recording a point.  However, Miller would go on to play in 940 games for the Caps over 13 seasons and establish himself as one of the best defensive forwards in the league.  Ridley would play in 588 games for the Caps, scoring 218 goals and averaging almost a point per game (547 total points) over his career with the Caps.  This trade stands as one of – if not the – most lopsided trades in Caps history.

After a period in which the Caps’ most important games seemed to come against the Philadelphia Flyers, the Caps and Rangers renewed post-season acquaintances in 1990 in the Patrick Division finals.

The Caps went into their division final matchup having struggled against the New Jersey Devils through six games until getting a game-winning, series-clinching goal from forward John Druce in the second period of Game 6, a 3-2 Washington win.  That goal, his third of the division semi-final series against the Devils, was merely prelude for what came next.

Druce scored a goal that was lost in the noise of a 7-3 Ranger win in Game 1 of the division finals at Madison Square Garden.  He made some noise of his own in Game 2.  Druce scored a goal in each period to record his first post-season hat trick – his first NHL hat trick, for that matter – in a 6-3 Capitals win.  In Game 3 at Capital Centre he rose to the occasion (Dino Ciccarelli would miss this game and the rest of the playoffs with a sprained knee, and goalie Don Beaupre went out early in the first period with a groin injury) by scoring a pair of power play goals in a four-goal first period in the Caps’ 6-3 win.

In Game 4, Druce scored two more goals, giving him eight in the four games of the series, goals that the Caps needed to get to overtime against the Rangers.  Rod Langway won it for Washington in overtime, 4-3, on what would be his only shot on goal for the game.  In Game 5, Druce took things into his own hands in settling the affair.  Kelly Miller and Normand Rochefort exchanged goals for the Caps and Rangers, respectively, in regulation.  In overtime, though, it was Druce redirecting a centering pass from Geoff Courtnall past goalie John Vanbiesbrouck to give the Caps a 2-1 win and their first trip into the conference finals in franchise history.  For Druce it was the series of a lifetime – nine goals on 20 shots over five games.

The Caps and Rangers would meet the following year in the playoffs as well.  It was their reward for a long, slow slog in which five Patrick Division teams finished only 12 points apart in the standings (the Philadelphia Flyers were the odd team out, missing the playoffs).  The Caps struggled against the Rangers in the regular season, going 2-4-1 in seven games.

They struggled early in the Patrick Division semi-final as well.  Washington managed only a single goal with 93 seconds left in a 2-1 loss in Game 1.  After getting a 36-save shutout from goalie Don Beaupre in a 3-0 win in Game 2, the Caps’ offense went dark once more.  Mike Richter returned the favor to the Caps, shutting them out by a 6-0 score in Game 3, the worst playoff loss at home in Caps’ history to that point. 

In Game 4 at Capital Centre, the Rangers went out to a 1-0 lead in the first period.  But just 25 seconds into the second period, Kevin Hatcher tied the game for the Caps.  Washington took the lead late in the period on a goal from Dave Tippett.  In the third period, Alan May stuffed home a rebound of a Mike Lalor shot to give the Caps a 3-1 lead.  It was just enough offense for the Caps, who tied the series at two games apiece with a 3-2 win.

Game 5 at Madison Square Garden would be the turning point in the series.  And it would turn on the stick of the Capitals’ Dino Ciccarelli.  From 1989 through 1992, Ciccarelli, who was obtained in 1989 in one of the biggest deals in Capitals history (Ciccarelli and defenseman Bob Rouse to Washington for Mike Gartner and Larry Murphy), was among the most popular of the Capitals.  Small wonder why.  In the playoffs over those four seasons only three players – Mario Lemieux, Brett Hull, and Cam Neely – averaged more goals per playoff game.

It figured that Ciccarelli would score one of those goals in this game.  The teams went back and forth in regulation but could not settle things in the first 60 minutes, heading to overtime in a 4-4 tie.  However, in the overtime it was a case of each team getting a chance, one missing theirs and the other capitalizing almost immediately.  The Rangers’ chance came from, of all people, Mike Gartner (he was traded by Minnesota to the Rangers in March 1990).  Gartner missed a golden opportunity off a pass from Bernie Nicholls that was shot high.  Then, at the other end, Ciccarelli took the puck deep into the Ranger end, eluded a check, and popped out from behind the net where he sent a soft shot through goalie Mike Richter’s skates on the Caps’ 55th shot of the game at the 6:44 mark of overtime for the 5-4 win.

In Game 6 at Capital Centre the Caps scored on their first two shots, led 3-0 barely seven minutes into the game (sending Richter to the bench in favor of John Vanbiesbrouck), and held on for a 4-2 win in the series-clinching game.  For the Caps it would be the first time in club history that they advanced past the first round of the playoffs in consecutive years and the second consecutive year that they eliminated the Rangers in the post season.

It was the last time that the Caps and Rangers would meet in the post season as Patrick Division rivals.  The Caps would win two of the three playoff series between the clubs, all three series won by the lower-seeded team.  It would be that 1986 meeting, though, that would stick in Capitals fans’ minds as the best opportunity for a Stanley Cup missed.

As much as any other rivalry between the Caps and the rest of the Patrick Division, this one between the Capitals and Rangers might have been defined by personalities.  Mike Gartner, Mike Ridley, and Kelly Miller played important roles for both sides over the course of the 14-year rivalry.  John Druce was the very embodiment of the player who came out of nowhere to be the dominant force of an entire playoff series in 1990.  There were the five overtime games played between the clubs over three playoff series with game-winning goals scored by five different players.  There was Dino Ciccarelli, who scored nine goals in his first 18 regular season games against the Rangers as a Capital, but who might have been remembered for the only two goals he scored against the Rangers in the post-season in this rivalry, both of them game winners in New York.  There was a feisty young Ranger forward, all of 5’9, 170 pounds, who on a November night in 1984 decided it would be a good idea to take on Scott Stevens with 32 seconds left in a 4-3 Ranger win, and then a month later mixing it up with another Cap, Timo Blomqvist, this time on Washington ice…

Today, that undersized forward – George McPhee – is the general manager of the Capitals.  The legacy of the Patrick Division is long indeed.