We wind up the Big Apple portion of the look back at the Washington Capitals’ Patrick Division rivalries with a stop just back over the river in New Jersey and a team that spent a decade in transition from one of the league’s bottom dwellers to a playoff contender while trying to fend off their Patrick Division rivals.
It was a long and winding road for the New Jersey Devils to become the “New Jersey Devils” of the National Hockey League’s Patrick Division. It started in the same year that the Washington Capitals came into the league – 1974-1975. The other expansion team joining the league that season took up residence in Kansas City and was known as the “Scouts.” It seemed to be an apt name. They started their inaugural season on the road for eight games (their new arena was not yet complete) before their franchise home opener – a 5-4 win over Washington.
Then, just two dismal (27-110-23 record) years later they hit the road for good, moving to Denver to become the “Colorado Rockies.” Things were not much better in Denver. In six seasons in the Mile High City the Rockies posted a 113-281-86 record with one playoff appearance. Not even having Don Cherry behind the bench in the 1979-1980 season could raise them to respectability. After six seasons, much of which was spent hinting at a move to New Jersey under new ownership, the Rockies moved east, renamed the “New Jersey Devils” for the 1982-1983 season, the team that would be the last addition to the Patrick Division.
In the 11 years that the Caps and the Devils fought in the Patrick Division, the Caps recorded a 50-23-4 record against New Jersey, by far the Caps’ best regular season record against a division rival. Only in 1989 (3-4-0) and 1993 (2-5-0) did the Caps finish the regular season with a losing record against New Jersey.
For the Caps and the Devils, the rivalry started something less than emphatically. When the teams got together for their first meeting as Patrick Division rivals in East Rutherford, NJ, on the night of November 8, 1982, the Caps were sitting in fifth place in the division with a 4-7-2 record, while the Devils were in the midst of a nine-game winless streak (0-7-2) that dropped them to 3-8-5 and fourth place in the division. The game did not give either team much comfort. First, paid attendance was only 10,273. Second, the teams skated to a 2-2 tie, the Devils scoring on a late goal by Jeff Larmer to even the score.
From that point forward, though, the Caps owned the Devils. They won the last six meetings that 1982-1983 season, and by the time the 1987-1988 season ended, the Caps had a 32-6-4 record against New Jersey in the Patrick Division. Washington outscored the Devils, 171-100, over those 42 games (4.07 goals per game to 2.38). The Devils managed consecutive games without a loss only once in that span, and that “streak” was split between two seasons, the Devils beating the Caps by a 3-2 score in their last meeting of the 1984-1985 season on March 28, 1985, then beating the Caps by a 4-1 margin in the teams’ first meeting of the 1985-1986 season on October 12, 1985. At one point the Caps had a 19-0-1 record at home against New Jersey as Patrick Division rivals before losing at Capital Centre on March 20, 1988, by a 4-2 score.
That 1987-1988 season and that loss to the Devils at home to end the season series… Caps fans should have known. It would be the first in which the Devils would qualify for the post-season as a member of the Patrick Division. They did it by the width of their skate blades, finishing in a tie for fourth place in the division with the New York Rangers, but qualifying for the playoffs on the basis of having more wins (they actually lost their season series with the Rangers).
While the Capitals were battling the Philadelphia Flyers to a Game 7 overtime in the division semi-finals before advancing, the Devils were showing a certain resiliency in their first round matchup, upsetting the New York Islanders in six games after splitting the first four contests, both of the Devils’ losses coming in overtime.
After their seven-game series against the Flyers, the upstart Devils might have seemed a lesser foe to the Caps in the division finals. The Caps might have been feeling even better after racing out to a 3-0 lead against the Devils in Game 1 on goals by Mike Ridley, Larry Murphy, and Scott Stevens before strangling the Devils over the remainder of the contest in a 3-1 win at Capital Centre.
The win came at a price, though. Late in the third period, Caps defenseman Rod Langway got tangled up with Devils’ forward Pat Verbeek. In the moment, Verbeek’s skate sliced through the back of Langway’s calf. Langway skated off under his own power, a steak of red following him to the Capitals’ bench. The injury to his leg would end his season...
Langway’s absence was felt keenly and immediately. The Devils outscored the Caps, 15-6, in Games 2 and 3, including a 10-4 pasting in Game 3 in which the Devils’ Patrik Sundstrom and Mark Johnson recorded hat tricks, Johnson finishing with four goals. Sundstrom finished with eight points, eclipsing Wayne Gretzky’s record for points in a single playoff game. That still stands as an NHL playoff record, since tied by Mario Lemieux.
Then, it was Washington’s turn to display their own brand of resilience. The Caps won Game 4 in New Jersey by a 4-1 margin, and after dropping Game 5 at home, 3-1, faced elimination in New Jersey in Game 6. The Devils opened the scoring just 18 seconds into the game when Claude Loiselle took advantage of indecision between goalie Pete Peeters and Scott Stevens over who would play a loose puck. Loiselle got to the puck before either of them and scored the game’s first goal.
That would pretty much end the fun portion of the evening for the Devils and their fans. The Caps ran off six unanswered goals from six different players -- Mike Ridley, Dale Hunter, Steve Leach, Yvon Corriveau, Dave Christian, and Kelly Miller, for those keeping score – before the Devils’ Dave Maley scored in the third period. Mike Gartner ended the scoring in the 7-2 win to set up a Game 7 at Capital Centre in Landover, MD.
Ah, but you know how such things end. The Caps could not duplicate their first round seventh game magic against the Flyers in the deciding game against the Devils. The Devils scored early once more, Kirk Muller scoring just 14 seconds into the contest. The Devils did not wilt this time, though. Claude Loiselle scored 12 minutes in to make it 2-0. The Caps rallied behind goals by Grant Ledyard and Kevin Hatcher in the second period to leave the teams tied at two goals apiece headed into the last 20 minutes.
It was John MacLean scoring 14 minutes into the third period, giving the Devils a 3-2 lead that they would carry to the final buzzer, eliminating the Caps. The series stands out, not just for the Caps losing their captain and on-ice leader for the last six games of the series, but for the mayhem on the ice. The teams combined for 654 minutes in penalties over the seven games, an NHL record for penalty minutes by two teams in a playoff series that still stands, as does New Jersey’s 349 penalty minutes as a team. By way of comparison, the 2013 Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks played 23 games and compiled a total of only 209 penalty minutes.
The Caps would get a measure of revenge two years later when they met the Devils in the Patrick Division semi-finals. The Caps lost two of the first three games, all of the decisions of the one-goal variety. Game 4, however, would signal what was to come for the Capitals in the 1990 post season. With the game tied at 1-1, John Druce got what would be the game-winning goal (his second of the series) in what would be a Capitals 3-1 win. Druce went on to record 14 goals in 15 playoff games in 1990.
There was still unfinished business against the Devils, though. Washington got balanced scoring in Game 5 with Dale Hunter, Mike Ridley, Dino Ciccarelli and Geoff Courtnall scoring for the Caps. It was just enough for Don Beaupre, who stopped 17 of the 20 shots he faced in a 4-3 win for the Caps. In Game 6, the Devils squandered a chance early when defenseman Aleksei Kasatonov hit the post on a shot just four minutes into the game. The teams fought to a draw almost to the horn for the first intermission, but Steve Leach gave the Caps a 1-0 lead with 11 seconds left in the period when he intercepted defenseman Vyacheslav Fetisov’s attempted clearing pass and fired the puck past goalie Chris Terreri.
The Caps took a 2-0 lead early in the second period on a goal by Geoff Courtnall, and the Devils halved the deficit on a goal by John MacLean late in the period. Not late enough, though. John Druce poked in his own rebound with less than a minute left in the second period to give the Caps a 3-1 lead at the second break. Peter Stastny got the Devils back within a goal early in the third period, but that was as close as the Devils could get, the Caps eliminating them with their 3-2 win.
The Caps and Devils would not meet again as Patrick Division foes in the playoffs. In fact, that 1990 series remains the last time those two teams met in the post-season. Although both teams would reach the playoffs in their last three seasons in the division, only the Caps would win a playoff series over that time, beating the Rangers in six games in 1991.
Over their last three seasons as Patrick Division foes, the Caps eked out an 11-10-0 regular season record over New Jersey. But even to the end it was an interesting rivalry. On April 10, 1993, the teams met for the final time as Patrick Division opponents. The Caps had clinched a spot in the post-season the previous night when the Pittsburgh Penguins beat the New York Rangers. The Devils were still in need of a win to reach the playoffs, though. They got off on the right foot on a goal by former Caps defenseman Scott Stevens in the first period. It was the springboard the Devils needed, building on that early goal for a 4-1 lead in the third period. The Caps then got two goals of their own, one of them by Bob Carpenter, now in his second tour with the Caps. It was not enough, however. Claude Lemieux scored late, and Craig Billington made the two-goal lead stand up in a 5-3 Devils win that brought the rivalry to a close. Carpenter would later go on to play for the Devils, and Billington would later tend goal for the Caps.
The stuff that makes for a devil of a rivalry.