Monday, August 24, 2015

Washington Capitals -- Memorable Goals: The Most Memorable of All

We are down to the last of our look at memorable goals in the history of the Washington Capitals franchise.  This one sent the Capitals to a place to which they had never been and one to which they have yet to return.

June 4, 1998: “…to go where no Capital has gone before.”

For 14 seasons, the Washington Capitals were the little engine that almost could.  In each of those seasons, starting with the 1982-1983 campaign, they reached the playoffs, but there their hopes would founder, undone by a hot goaltender, an inopportune bounce, or just not being quite good enough.  In those 14 seasons the Caps reached the second round five times and the conference final once.  Never did they play for the big prize, the Stanley Cup.

The 1996-1997 team would be the one to break the streak of playoff appearances.  Not that it was entirely their fault.  It was a team wracked by injury.  Only Dale Hunter among 34 skaters playing that season managed to appear in all 82 games.  Only Ken Klee among the rest would appear in as many as 80 games.  Only ten skaters appeared in more than 60 games.  The defense was especially impacted by the injury bug; Mark Tinordi and Sergei Gonchar missed a total of 51 man-games.

Then there was the mystery of goaltender Jim Carey.  A first team NHL all-rookie team goalie in 1995, an NHL first team all-star in 1996, and the Vezina Trophy winner as outstanding goaltender in 1996, Carey appeared poised to become an elite goaltender for the Caps for the next decade.  However, his postseason struggles in 1995 and 1996, when he went a combined 2-5 with a 4.62 goals against average and a .816 save percentage, spread into his regular season performance in 1996-1997. 

Carey went 9-6-1, 2.49, .899 in his fist 16 appearances of that season, wrapping it up with a 27-save shutout of the Montreal Canadiens.  That shutout would be the high watermark of his season and perhaps for the rest of his NHL career.  He lost his next five decisions and would go 8-12-2, 2.93, .889 in 24 appearances before he was traded at the end of February with Anson Carter, Jason Allison, and a third-round draft pick to the Boston Bruins for goaltender Bill Ranford, Adam Oates, and Rick Tocchet.

It would be the only major deal that the Caps would make at the trading deadline in 1997, but it would not be the last of their personnel changes.  In June, following the Caps’ 33-40-9 finish, general manager David Poile was relieved in favor of George McPhee, and head coach Jim Schoenfeld was relieved in favor of Ron Wilson.  It was part of a general housecleaning of the club in advance of its moving from US Airways Arena in Landover, Maryland, for a new facility – MCI Center (now Verizon Center) – in downtown Washington.

The actual move to their new arena would not take place until early December of the 1997-1998 season, so the Capitals had a chance to bid their old digs in Maryland farewell.  Unfortunately, the Caps’ performance leading up to their move looked too much like their performance from the preceding season.  In the season opener, the Caps visited Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, and things got off to a difficult start right away.  Bill Ranford started the contest as the Caps’ new number one netminder, but he took a Per Gustafsson shot to the groin in the first period. 

Ranford finished the period, stopping 16 of the 17 shots he faced, but he could not return for the second period.  In his place came Olaf Kolzig, a former first round draft pick who, in parts of six seasons, gave little indication that his selection as a first round draft pick was justified (14-36-8, 2.99, .891).  However, there were hints of things to come.  Starting with a three-game run in January of the 1996-1997 season in which he want 2-0-1 and stopped 71 of 72 shots (.986 save percentage) with two shutouts, Kolzig had a 2.37 goals against average and a .910 save percentage over his last 16 appearances. And, there was his playoff record in relief of the struggling Carey in the previous two postseasons, a 1.87 goals against average and a .936 save percentage, including a 62-save effort in a four-overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1996.

Kolzig, now 27 years of age, was ready to take the reins.  By season’s end he was tied for ninth in total appearances (64), ninth in minutes (3,788), tied for third in wins (33), fourth in save percentage (.920), and tied for ninth in shutouts (5).  And Ranford was the backup, the “Wally Pipp” to Kolzig’s “Lou Gehrig,” the Caps number one goaltender for the next decade.

Meanwhile, as things were settling down in goal, the Caps struggled well into the second half of the season.  Not even moving into their new arena and christening it with a 3-2 overtime win over the Florida Panthers did much to lift them out of their doldrums.  When they lost to the Philadelphia Flyers, 3-2, on March 5th, they were 26-24-11.  They were not necessarily in jeopardy of missing the playoffs – they were third in the Atlantic Division and sixth in the Eastern Conference with 64 points, nine points clear of the New York Rangers – but they hardly looked as if they would do much damage in the postseason once they got there.

It was at this point that first year general manager George McPhee, whose biggest deal to date might have been to claim Jeff Toms off waivers from the Tampa Bay Lightning in November (he went on to score the game-winning overtime goal for the Caps in the first game at MCI Center the following month), made a pair of deals to try to lift the Caps out of their uninspired play.  On March 9th he obtained Esa Tikkanen from Florida for Dwayne Hay and the always popular “future considerations.”  Twelve days later he signed Brian Bellows from the Berlin (Germany) Capitals as a free agent.

In Tikkanen and Bellows, McPhee acquired more than 1,900 games of regular season experience and almost 300 games of postseason experience.  Whether the acquisitions helped the Caps in the stretch run of the regular season, they did not hurt.  The Caps went 13-6-1 after obtaining Tikkanen, 8-2-1 after signing Bellows.  The Caps finished 40-30-12, third in the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference’s fourth-seed heading to the playoffs.

The Caps drew the Boston Bruins in the first round.  After winning Game 1, 3-1, behind a 27-save effort from Kolzig and goals from both Tikkanen and Bellows, along with Sergei Gonchar, sudden misfortune nearly derailed the Caps before they got any further.  Early in Game 2, Peter Bondra, who tied for the league lead with 52 goals in the regular season, suffered an ankle injury that ended his night after five shifts and less than three minutes of ice time.  The Caps lost, 4-3 in double overtime, and headed to Boston in jeopardy of not having their top offensive weapon available.

At that point, Kolzig put the team on his back.  He stopped 52 of 54 shots in a 3-2 double-overtime win in Game 3 that was not without its controversy.  An apparent game-winning goal by P.J. Axelsson in the first overtime was waved off for a teammate’s skate being in the crease.  Joe Juneau won it for the Caps in the seventh minute of the second overtime to end a streak of seven consecutive postseason losses in overtime by the Caps, dating back to a 5-4 overtime win against the New York Rangers in the first round of the 1991 postseason.

If Kolzig was great in Game 3, he was better in Game 4.  He stopped all 38 shots he faced in a 3-0 Caps win, Kolzig’s first career playoff shutout.  In Game 5, however, the tables turned.  After four straight games in which the Caps went out to 2-0 leads in the series, they could not muster any goals against Byron Dafoe, and the Bruins won, 4-0, to send the series back to Boston one more time for Game 6.  For the third time in the series a game would go to overtime. Brian Bellows ended it 15:41 into the extra period when his 50-footer skipped past Dafoe to send the Caps to the second round against the Ottawa Senators.

The Senators finished barely above .500 in the regular season (34-33-15) and were the eighth-seed in the first round of the playoffs.  However, they dispatched the team with the top record in the Eastern Conference, the New Jersey Devils (48-23-11, the only team in the East to finish with more than 100 points in the standings), in six games.

Lightning would not strike twice for the Senators.  They looked every bit like an eighth-seed team as the Caps eliminated them in five games, outscoring the Senators, 18-7, while Kolzig stopped 134 of 141 shots (.950 save percentage) and shut out the Senators in Games 4 and 5 to close out the series.

For the second time in franchise history, the Caps advanced to the conference final. Their first, in 1990, ended quickly and quietly, a sweep in four games at the hands of the Boston Bruins.  This time their opponent would be the Buffalo Sabres, making their third trip to the conference final in franchise history and looking to make their second appearance in the Stanley Cup final (they lost in six games to Philadelphia in 1975).  To get this far to face the Caps they beat the Flyers in five games in the opening round, and then they swept Montreal in four games in the second round.

If Washington had an advantage in goal with Boston having used Byron Dafoe, and the Senators using Ron Tugnutt and Damien Rhodes, they would have no such advantage in this round.  Dominik Hasek tied for the league lead in games played (72) and led in minutes played (4,219).  His 33 wins tied Kolzig for third place, while his goals against average was fourth (2.09), and his save percentage was first (.932).  He had 13 shutouts, more than any goaltender in a single season since Tony Esposito had 15 for the Chicago Blackhawks in the 1969-1970 season.

If the Caps did have an advantage, it was in getting Peter Bondra back full time.  His ankle injury and then a head injury earlier in the postseason limited him to playing in only seven of the Caps’ 11 games through two rounds.  Unfortunately, he did not make his presence felt in Game 1 at MCI Center, but then neither did his teammates, as the Sabres grabbed home ice advantage with a 2-0 win. 

Game 2 was one of the more entertaining games, in an odd sort of way, in Capitals playoff history.  It happened to be on a night on which President Bill Clinton took in his first live hockey game.  Neither he nor the fans in attendance would be disappointed (even if the President left early).  Buffalo scored first, in the last minute of the first period.  Then, after a most of what had been to that point a largely uneventful second period, things took a turn.  With the Capitals on a power play, defenseman Phil Housley lifted a harmless looking floater toward the Buffalo net.  Hasek reached out to glove the puck, but it never got there.  Peter Bondra redirected the puck over Hasek’s shoulder to tie the game with five seconds left in the period:

The careful observer should note, as the Sabres tried to do with referee Kerry Fraser, that the goal should not have counted.  Bondra’s left skate is clearly in the blue paint when he makes contact with the puck.  Fraser did not overturn the call, and the Caps and Sabres went to the third period tied, 1-1.  That was not all for the hijinks, though.  After Joe Juneau gave the Caps the lead in the third period, Bondra and Hasek would renew their acquaintances.  With less than five minutes left in regulation, Bondra was chasing down a loose puck sliding toward the Sabres’ goal line.  Hasek came out to collect the puck, but he got there just before Bondra.  As Hasek was backhanding the puck off the side boards, Bondra collided with him, sending Hasek tumbling into the corner.  With Bondra turned around and heading back up ice, Hasek got to his feet and hurled his blocker at Bondra. 

It touched off a scrum that involved all ten skaters, but ended up yielding a power play for the Caps as the Sabres were called for an extra penalty.  Karma being what it is, the Caps failed to convert the power play, and it cost them in the last minute of regulation when Esa Tikkanen redirected a puck into his own net on a Sabres power play to tie the game, 2-2, at the end of regulation.

There would be one more bit of controversy.  Three minutes into the overtime period, the Caps sent the puck deep into the Buffalo end.  What appeared to be an icing infraction was not called as such, and Andrei Nikolishin got to the puck along the right wing boards.  He sent the puck across to Todd Krygier heading down the middle, and Krygier beat Hasek to give the Caps a split at home with the 3-2 overtime win.

Games 4 and 5 continued a pattern for the Caps.  Just as they did in the opening round series, they swept those games on enemy ice.  In doing so, they relied heavily on Kolzig in goal.  In Games 3 and 4 of the first two rounds, Kolzig was 3-1, 1.36, .963, with two shutouts.  In Games 3 and 4 in Buffalo, he stopped 57 of 60 shots (.950 save percentage) and had a goals against of 1.39, winning both decisions, including a 4-3 overtime win in Game 3.

Unfortunately, the Caps could not close out an opponent in Game 5 for the second time in three series as they fell to the Sabres at home, 2-1.  It set up a return to Buffalo, where the Sabres had yet to beat the Caps after winning their first four home games of the postseason.

Game 6 was one of those games that does not need embellishment or made-up stories about inspiration.  Nevertheless there was a backstory to this game that would have been hard to make up.  Before the game, Ron Wilson used the subject of the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing mission for his talk to the team.  For one of the players, the talk might have had special meaning.  Joe Juneau played for four seasons with the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Engineers hockey team, where he compiled 69 goals and 213 points in 124 games.  He also earned a degree in aeronautical engineering from RPI.  He remarked to Wilson that, “I’m a rocket scientist…I’ll be Neil Armstrong,” a reference to the commander of the Apollo 11 mission and first man to step onto the moon.

As had been the case in this series to this point, though, it was the goalies who dominated.  Olaf Kolzig and Dominik Hasek stopped everything they saw over the game’s first 33 minutes.  Then, Buffalo drew first blood.  Michael Peca one-timed a drop pass from Dixon Ward past Kolzig with just under seven minutes left in the second period to make it 1-0.  However, on the next shift it was Hasek’s turn to blink.  Esa Tikkanen redirected a Mark Tinordi shot past Hasek to make it 1-1, where the teams left it at the second intermission.

Buffalo fans might have thought their team was heading back to Washington for a series-deciding game when Paul Kruse scored in the eighth minute of the third period to give the Sabres a 2-1 lead.  Peter Bondra put an end to that thinking, at least temporarily, when he redirected an Andrei Nikolishin feed past Hasek with just less than six minutes to play in regulation.

Neither team could get that third goal in regulation, so they went to overtime, the sixth overtime contest for the Caps in 17 games in this postseason, and the sixth in 15 postseason contests for the Sabres.  What had to be scratching gently in the Sabres’ heads was that the Caps had won both overtime contests in this series so far, one in Washington and one in Buffalo.  The Sabres looked to end soon, however, but Kolzig stopped a Jason Woolley attempt early in the period, and he foiled Vaclav Varada on a breakaway later.

The Capitals would get their chance in the seventh minute of the overtime…

So many little things often make a big thing.  There was Darryl Shannon whiffing on an attempted pass from his own blue line that allowed Joe Juneau to swoop in and collect the puck.  There was Juneau being patient not to jump into the offensive zone with teammate Adam Oates still in the zone, which would have stopped the play on an offside.  There was Brian Bellows filling a hole in the defense and giving Juneau a passing option.  There was Juneau not giving up on the play as Bellows circled in around Shannon to take several whacks at the puck from the top of the crease.  There was the Buffalo defense paying such close attention to Bellows – three defenders converged on him – that it opened enough space for Juneau to sneak in on the weak side of the play.  There was Michal Grosek frantically trying to get back to tie up Juneau before Juneau had any chance to jump on a loose puck.  There was Hasek down on the ice desperately trying to smother the puck with his glove and waiting for help that was too late to arrive.  And there was Juneau, gently pulling the puck away from one last lunge by Hasek and snapping it into the net a moment before Grosek arrived.

For the Caps, it was the fourth time in franchise history that a series ended on an overtime goal and the third straight time they came out victorious (after losing to the New York Islanders in Game 7 in the opening round of the 1987 playoffs they beat the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 7 of the 1988 opening round, and they defeated the New York Rangers in Game 5 of the second round of the 1990 postseason).  This, however, was different.  This was for the Prince of Wales Trophy, awarded to the Eastern Conference champion. 

Oh, and it was also for a trip to the Stanley Cup final, the first – and to date, only – time in Capitals history they played in a final.

The Caps would lose to the Detroit Red Wings in the final, and in one of hockey’s odd ironies, Juneau would be traded the following season by the Caps to the Sabres.  But on this night in Buffalo in early June of 1998, it was fitting that a rocket scientist named “Juneau” would send the Capitals where no Capital had gone before, and that is what makes this goal the most memorable of all.