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‘Twas the Game Before Christmas

In 39 seasons, the Washington Capitals had the chance to send their fans into the holiday in true Capitals spirit. How have they fared?

Washington Capitals v New York Rangers Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

“'Twas the game before Christmas, when all thro' the stands
All the Caps fans were cheering and clapping their hands.
The team skated out as one, resolute
Their focus on victory so absolute;
The referee was poised with puck in his hand,
While visions of goals and saves swept ‘cross the land.”

‘Tis the holiday season, and for hockey fans across North America, the game is a part of the tradition. And nothing helps put a hockey fan in a better frame of mind than having the team they root for do well during this festive season. On December 23rd, the Washington Capitals will play the 40th “Game Before Christmas” game in its history, that last game before the holiday that will serve as an added bit of joy or a slight blemish on the season. How have the Caps fared in sending their fans off into the holiday over the years?

Here is the complete record of their Games Before Christmas (GBC):

Some interesting things to note about their record and the games of which it is comprised…

  • The overall record in 39 previous games is 18-14-2, with five ties. At home that record is 9-5-1, with three ties, while on the road it is 9-9-1, with two ties.
  • By historical standards, the games have been relatively high-scoring, both the Caps (3.05) and their opponents (3.13) averaging more than three goals per game.
  • The Caps’ longest winning streak in these games is four, coming over the 2002-2006 period (there was no game in 2004 due to the lockout that season). It was part of a streak of 11 games in which the Caps earned standings points in these games (8-0-2, with one tie), spanning the 2000-2011 period).
  • The Caps have faced 17 teams over the 39 games they played immediately before Christmas. Among the teams they faced just once, the longest they have gone since playing them in this game is against the Boston Bruins, to whom the Caps fell, 7-4, back in 1981.
  • The Caps have played the New York Islanders and the New York Rangers the most times in these games, five apiece. Oddly enough, the Caps are 2-2-1 against both clubs (a tie against the Rangers, an overtime loss to the Islanders).
  • The Caps will host this year’s edition of the game hoping to break a two-game losing streak in GBC’s on home ice (a 3-2 loss to the Anaheim Ducks in 2013 and a 3-2 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2010). Their last such win on home ice was a 5-2 decision over Buffalo in 2009.

Noteworthy games…

December 22, 1974. As legend has it, children on Santa’s naughty list at least get coal in their stockings... but Caps fans in December 1974 got nothing. Not that the Caps’ inaugural season was anything special, but for all the losing, heading into that first GBC – they were 3-27-4 when the Buffalo Sabres came to town. But the Caps would end up being shut out in that game against Buffalo, 4-0, the sixth time in just 35 games that the Caps had been shut out that season (something that would happen another six times before the end of the year). They went on to finish with the league standard in futility, an 8-67-5 record that still stands as the all-time League low in standings points for a full season in the modern era.

December 21, 1975. The second GBC sent the Capitals to Buffalo to face the Sabres a second straight time heading into the holiday. It was as unforgettable a forgettable game ever gets. Record-setting, in fact, for both teams. The Sabres scored a team-record 14 goals (which they’ve since tied, but never surpassed), set an NHL record for total points in a game (40, which still stands), scored five goals in 4:57, and pounded the Caps 14-2, which established several records for the Caps that (thankfully) still stand:

  • Total goals allowed: 14
  • Largest losing margin: 12
  • Goals allowed in a period: 8

December 23, 1977. The Capitals won their first GBC in 1977 when they edged the Detroit Red Wings, 3-2, at Capital Centre. It came in the midst of the Caps showing signs of respectability. After going 2-18-5 in their first 25 games, the Caps were 3-2-1 in six games immediately before Detroit’s visit. It was not a harbinger of better things to come; at least not yet, anyway. The Caps, who were 6-20-6 after the win, went 11-29-8 the rest of the way to finish the 1977-1978 season 17-49-14, and they needed a three-game winning streak to close the season to finish that well.

December 21, 1980. Christmas 1980 would be a happy one in Capitals Nation. Not only did they win their GBC that season, but it was their first road win in these games, and it came against perhaps their bitterest rival at the time, the Philadelphia Flyers, to the tune of 6-0. It was the back half of a back-to-back, home-and-home series with the Flyers that opened with a 5-2 loss at Capital Centre the previous night. That first game was a bitter pill to swallow for the Caps, who took a 2-0 lead in the first period, only to yield five unanswered goals, the last of which was a shorthanded strike by Reggie Leach mid-way through the third period to seal the deal.

The following night, the Caps took an early lead once more, Dennis Maruk doing the honors on a power play late in the period. However, that first period was punctuated – often – by penalties that might have been a spillover from the previous night. It started just 19 seconds into the game when the Flyers’ Ken Linseman and Washington’s Jim McTaggart got into it. When the smoke cleared, and the equipment was sorted out, ten players and both benches received penalties, eight of them ten-minute misconduct penalties in addition to the fighting majors for McTaggart and Linseman, and a total of 94 penalty minutes from that incident alone.

It would not be the last…of the first period. In the first 20 minutes of the contest, 32 penalties were called totaling 184 minutes (15 penalties for 90 minutes for the Caps; 17 penalties totaling 94 minutes for the Flyers; each team charged with four fighting majors and seven ten-minute misconduct penalties).

The Caps avoided the collapse they had the previous night, expanding their lead in the second period on a goals by Yvon Labre and Jean Pronovost, then adding three more in the third as the Flyers and Caps resumed their assault on the rules. By the time the Caps finished their 6-0 win, the teams combined for 61 penalties and 344 penalty minutes (a team record for both teams in a game in Caps history), while Caps Guy Charron and Darren Veitch managed to retain body parts that were almost left in Philadelphia. Peace on Earth and Good Will Toward Men, indeed.

December 23, 1983. The previous spring, the Caps made their first appearance in the postseason in franchise history, although it was short-lived. The New York Islanders beat the Caps in four games of a best-of-five opening round series on their way to a fourth-straight Stanley Cup. In December 1984, the Islanders were rolling along, carrying a 24-9-2 record into Washington on December 23rd, including a 6-1 pasting of the Caps at Nassau Coliseum the previous night for what was their sixth straight win at the time. The Caps served notice that such insults would not be suffered lightly, though, as they returned the favor, beating the Islanders 7-3 in what is still their highest scoring GBC at home in team history.

December 23, 1996. The Caps found themselves in a rut in their GBC’s, having gone 1-5-2 in their last eight such games before heading to Tampa Bay to face the Lightning for the first time in a GBC. Worse, the Caps were on a five-game losing streak in these games, making Christmas just a little less joyful for Capitals Nation. It was a battle of current and past Capitals goaltenders with Jim Carey facing former Caps’ netminder Rick Tabaracci. Peter Bondra recorded a goal that would spark a six-game goal streak and came in the midst of a hot streak in which he recorded 17 goals in just 15 games. Joe Juneau and Kelly Miller added goals, Dale Hunter assisted on all three goals, and Carey stopped 23 of 24 shots in the 3-1 win.

December 22, 2001. It was another of those back-to-back, home-and-home series the Caps seemed to play at this time of year back in the day. In 2001 it was the Pittsburgh Penguins. It also happened to be the third time these teams met in an 11-day period, the teams playing to a 2-2- tie on December 11th before the Pens beat the Caps in Pittsburgh, 4-3, the night before this contest. It looked as if the Penguins would eke out another 4-3 win at the Caps expense after building a 4-1 lead earlier in the game. The Caps, who had only Jaromir Jagr’s first goal against his old club for their offense, got goals from Chris Simon and Adam Oates to narrow the margin, but they still found themselves one short late in the third period.

The Caps had one more chance, though, with less than five seconds left on the clock. That is where Dave Molinari of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette picks it up… “With 4.9 seconds left… Capitals center Adam Oates won a draw cleanly from Robert Lang of the Penguins, pulling the puck back to Sergei Gonchar at the right point. Gonchar shot, Bondra collected the rebound and tossed the puck off goalie Johan Hedberg's glove and into the net. ‘It was a little bit lucky,’ Bondra said. ‘I don't think I had any other chance but to bank it in.’" Neither team could score in the overtime, although there were sparks flying as it ended, the clubs combining for six penalties (three apiece for Pittsburgh’s Billy Tibbetts and Washington’s Brendan Witt) and 28 minutes in penalties. The lasting image of that game and that moment, though, might be this one, courtesy of backup Caps goalie Craig Billington.

December 23, 2008. In what might be the most memorable of these games, the Caps defeated the New York Rangers, 5-4, in overtime at Madison Square Garden in one of the most improbable wins in Caps history. The game started in ghastly fashion for the Caps, who allowed a Markus Naslund goal less than four minutes into the contest, then gave up goals to Michal Rozsival and Ryan Callahan 11 seconds apart mid-way through the period. When Callahan scored his second of the game to give the Rangers a 4-0 lead less than five minutes into the second period, Caps fans might have been forgiven for hitting the egg nog especially hard.

But then, something wondrous happened. Alex Ovechkin took the puck off the left wing wall and just threw it at the net. The puck hit a body on the way through, fluttered into the air, and floated over goalie Henrik Lundqvist’s glove on the far side to make it 4-1, 7:25 into the second period. The Rangers gave the Caps a helping hand – call it “Christmas Spirit” – in the third period with a pair of penalties that put the Caps on power plays. Tomas Fleischmann converted one of them at the 1:41 mark, and then Viktor Kozlov made good on the second one with just over seven minutes gone in the period to make it a 4-3 game.

With less than eight minutes left in regulation, Alex Ovechkin gloved down a loose puck at he Ranger blue line, split two defenders, and beat goalie Henrik Lundqvist past his left pad to tie the game. In the first minute of overtime, Michael Nylander skated the puck out of his own end to the Ranger blue line, where he tried to feed it to Viktor Kozlov. The puck struck a Ranger and laid in open ice where Shaone Morrisonn stepped up and ripped a shot past Lundqvist to give the Caps the 5-4 overtime win on what was Morrisonn’s 26th birthday. Here, in all their glory, are the highlights from that game…

It’s a hard game to top, but perhaps tonight’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning (who the Caps beat in their previous two GBCs) will do just that. Just... as long as the Caps win.