The All-Time Capitals Team Tournament, Part IV

Photo by Craig Melvin/Stringer

Which Washington Capitals team was the best the organization has ever put on the ice? Four more contenders battle it out in Round 1 of our tournament to answer that very question.

Three-quarters of the bracket is now complete (go back and see the first three quartets here, here and here, and be sure to do your civic duty and vote in each poll), but there are still four slots to fill, including the only team to ever sniff hockey's Holy Grail...

***


S
Season GP ROW ROL T/SO Adj Pts Pts%
GF GF Rk
GA
GA Rk
4 1984-85 80 46 25
9
101 .631
322
8/21
240
2/21
13 1997-98 82
40
30
12 92 .561
219 13/26
202 10/26

The 1984-85 Caps were in many ways strikingly similar to the previous year’s team, with both finishing the regular season with 101 points, a +.14 per game goal differential and a fantastic team defense (the Caps slipped from the League’s top spot in goals-against to number two, but made up for it by moving up from twelfth to eighth in goals-for). But this team was known for its "Goal Dust Twins," as Bobby Carpenter became the first U.S.-born 50-goal scorer in NHL history (winding up with 53) and Mike Gartner hit that magical milestone as well. Scott Stevens put up a monster season of his own – 21 goals, 65 points and 221 penalty minutes – and the Caps once again entered the playoffs with home ice advantage in the first round.

Once there, they’d meet the Isles for the second-year in a row, but this was a New York team that finished 15 points behind the Caps in the Patrick Division. The Caps won the first two games, both in overtime… before dropping three straight and hitting the links. For all the goals the team scored during the regular season, Gartner was the only forward who managed more than a single tally in five playoff games.

For years, the Caps would continue in a similar fashion, generally following up strong regular seasons with disappointing playoff performances before ending a 14-year run of post-season appearances in 1997.

And then came 1997-98.

The season itself was largely unremarkable with three notable exceptions: Peter Bondra leading the League in goals (tied at 52 with Teemu Selanne), Olie Kolzig firmly establishing himself as the number one goaltender (33-18-10/2.20/.920) after Bill Ranford went down with an injury early on and the trio of Adam Oates, Dale Hunter and Phil Housley all reaching the 1,000-point plateau, the only time in League history as many teammates hit have that milestone in the same season. Other than that, it was typical Caps - hard-working, solid defense (including a #1-ranked, 89.2% effective penalty kill) and never enough offense (other than Bondra, the team had two forwards in the teens in goals scored and no one else up front with as many as a dozen). In fact, the team's +0.2 per-game goal differential was the worst of any team in our little tournament.

Still, they managed 92 points during the regular season - fourth in the Conference - which meant they'd host Boston (91 points) in Round 1. The Bruins were able to split the first two games after a double-overtime win in Game 2, but the Caps snagged both games in Boston before getting smoked at home in Game 5 only to see Brian Bellows pot a series-clinching goal from waaaaay downtown 15 minutes into overtime in Game 6.

As mentioned above, the other series in the East broke the Caps' way, and they'd face Ottawa in the second round (in a high-stakes battle of nation's capitals). But the Sens were no match for Kolzig, who allowed just seven goals (four in Game 3) in the five-game series, which included back-to-back shutouts to close out the round. Next up was Buffalo, and a trio of overtime wins including - Juneau's greatest-moment-in-team-history - sent the Caps to their first (and, to date, only) Finals appearance.

What came next leaves Caps fans to this day wondering about what might have been, but that shouldn't take away from what was, and that is simply the greatest playoff run in Washington Capitals history.

So which team would win a best-of-seven, 1984-85 or 1997-98? Could Kolzig et. al. pull off an upset win for Wilson, or would Murray’s stacked roster run ‘em over?


S
Season GP ROW ROL T/SO Adj Pts Pts%
GF GF Rk
GA
GA Rk
5 2008-09 82 46 27
9
101 .616
272 3/30
245
20/30
12 2000-01 82
41
31
10 92 .561
233 13/30
211 13/30

Bruce Boudreau burst on the NHL scene in 2007-08 (which we saw in this tourney's 8-vs.-9 match-up), inheriting Glen Hanlon's broken bunch at Thanksgiving and somehow turning it into a playoff team. Was the Jack Adams-winning coach a one-hit wonder, or could he build on his early success? In 2008-09, he proved it to be the latter.

The 50-win Caps would cruise to a second-consecutive Southeast Division title led by Alex Ovechkin's best pro season (56-54-110 and the Hart, Lindsay and Richard Trophies), Mike Green's incredible 31-goal campaign, a 34-goal season from Alex Semin and an 88-point effort from Nick Backstrom. Goaltending? Defense? Eh, who cared?

When the playoffs rolled around, the Caps drew a 95-point Ranger team and proceeded to lose Game 1 on home ice with Jose Theodore stopping just 17 of the 21 shots he faced. Boudreau gave the Game 2 start to Semyon Varlamov, who posted a 1.17 and four wins (two by shutout) over the series’ final six games (which was as many NHL appearances as he’d made prior to the series), despite losing a 1-0 decision in that Game 2. Sergei Fedorov’s goal with five minutes left in Game 7 sent the Caps on to the second round, where Varly would stay hot for the first three games against Pittsburgh (where a Kris Letang tally in Game 3 prevented the Caps from taking a commanding 3-0 series lead) before showing signs of fatigue... and a subpar defense. The Caps would yield 42 shots-against in three of the series’ final five games, and they managed to win one of those to force a Game 7 (thanks, David Steckel), but an early Marc-Andre Fleury stop on an Alex Ovechkin breakaway seemingly turned the tide dramatically in Pittsburgh’s favor and they routed the Caps on Verizon Center ice.

Those Caps gave the League everything it could have wanted – an exciting team with a marquee player at his peak squaring off in an epic series against its rival and their superstar(s). And it gave Caps fans a glimpse of what was to come for a young team on an upward trajectory.

Not even a decade earlier – and three years removed from taking the Caps to the Finals – Ron Wilson led Washington to a second-consecutive Southeast Division title with a team that finished thirteenth in the 30-team NHL in both goals-for and -against. The 2000-01 Caps were still trying to recapture whatever it was that propelled them to the Finals just a few springs earlier, and some of it was still there – Bondra scored 45 goals, Oates added a League-best 69 assists, Sergei Gonchar had 57 points and Kolzig 37 wins.

But what wasn’t there was the favorable playoff schedule, and with the Caps matching up with Pittsburgh in the first round, the results were predictable (though somewhat mercifully less embarrassing than in other losses to the Pens, as the only series lead the Caps held was at 1-0). Of course, that doesn’t mean the loss was any less painful than the others, as the final buzzer sounded on the series moments after a Game 6 overtime turnover by Gonchar wound up behind Kolzig courtesy of Martin Straka. Stunned.

So which team would win a best-of-seven, 2008-09 or 2000-01? Could Wilson's bunch solve Varlamov or stop the offensive-juggernaut-on-the-rise, or was Alex Ovechkin's second trip to the playoffs bound to be a successful one (at least in the first round)? Does the NCAA's "12-5 upset" rule apply to hypothetical hockey series?

***

With that, we've got our bracket filled out. Make sure you've voted in all three first-round "sub-regionals," and see you in Round 2...

Capitals_tourney_part_iv_medium

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