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Mid-Day Memories: Big Beginnings

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Where we look at those season openers in which a Caps rookie scored his first goal in his first game.

Washington Capitals v Boston Bruins Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images

If the most common dream of a young hockey player is scoring the game-winning goal in Game 7 of a Stanley Cup final, perhaps right up there on the dream list is scoring a goal in his first National Hockey League game in his team’s season opener. That dream does not come true often. Take the Washington Capitals. Only four players in team history have scored a goal in their first NHL game in what was the Capitals’ season opening game.

It would take the Capitals eight seasons for the dream to come true for the first time to one player. The date was October 7, 1981; the site was the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium where the Caps were visiting the Buffalo Sabres in the season opener for both teams. In the starting lineup was Bobby Carpenter, one of the most heralded rookies in the history of the league, branded the “Can’t Miss Kid” by Sports Illustrated as a 17-year old, four months before he was taken with the third overall pick by the Caps in the 1981 Entry Draft.

Carpenter wasted no time putting his first mark on a score sheet, recording the primary assist on a Ryan Walter goal to give the Caps a 1-0 lead over the Sabres just 12 seconds into their contest. It was, and remains the quickest point recorded by a rookie in his first NHL game.

Buffalo tied the game seven minutes later, sending the teams to the first intermission tied, 1-1. That set the stage for Carpenter and Walter to switch places on the go-ahead goal for the Caps in the fourth minute of the second period. Carpenter had his first NHL goal at the 3:06 mark on assists from Walter and Mike Gartner to put the Caps in front, 2-1. Things would go downhill for the Caps from there, the Sabres scoring four unanswered goals over a 12-minute stretch of the second period to win going away, 5-2, in Carpenter’s NHL debut.

It would not be the last of firsts for Bobby Carpenter. In addition to his being the first player in NHL history to jump from high school directly into the NHL, he was the first Capitals rookie to post 30-plus goals in his rookie season (32), and he was the first American-born player to record a 50-goal season (53 in 1984-1985).

Among the lesser-known facts in the Bobby Carpenter saga is that the Capitals traded up to improve their odds of selecting him in the 1981 draft. On June 10, 1981, the Caps traded the fifth and 26th (second round) overall picks to the Colorado Rockies for the third-overall and 45th (third round) overall pick in the 1981 Entry Draft. The Rockies took defenseman Joe Cirella with the fifth-overall pick, and he would play 503 games for the Rockies/New Jersey Devils, ninth-most among defensemen in Devils history. With the 26th overall pick, Colorado took forward Rich Chernomaz, who would play in only 51 career NHL games, 37 of them over four seasons with Colorado/New Jersey. In addition to taking Carpenter with the third-overall pick, the Caps took defenseman Eric Calder with the 45th overall pick. He played in two games in the NHL, both for the Caps, without recording a point.

Scott Stevens was the next rookie to record a goal in his first NHL game in a Capitals season opener, one day short of a year after Carpenter’s feat. In what unfolded as a back-and-forth affair against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on October 6, 1982, the Rangers broke on top with a pair of first period goals. Washington tied the game on goals less than two minutes apart early in the second period by Ted Bulley and Carpenter, and this is how the teams skated for almost ten minutes.

That changed in the 14th minute. Scott Stevens put the Caps in front, 3-2, on a goal assisted by Craig Laughlin and Chris Valentine. It was part of that back-and-forth that saw four lead changes in the game. The Rangers scored two goals less than two minutes apart early in the third period to regain the lead, but the Caps tied the game less than a minute after the Rangers took the lead, and then they got the game-winner from Mike Gartner with 1:50 left in the contest in a 5-4 Capitals win.

For Stevens, his second period goal was not just his first NHL goal, but it came on his first NHL shot. He was the first Capitals defenseman to record a goal in his first NHL game that happened to be a season opener. Among the four Capitals to record a goal in their first NHL game in a season opener, Stevens is the only one to have been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. He will not be the last, as the next player who fills this bill is a shoo-in for induction into the Hall.

It would be more than 30 years before another Capital rookie would score his first goal in his first NHL game in a season opener. That came on October 5, 2005. The Caps were in the midst of their most uncompetitive stretch of seasons since they set a standard for uncompetitiveness when they entered the league in 1974. But they did have a reward for futility, the first overall pick of the 2004 Entry Draft. With it, they selected Alex Ovechkin, but fans would have to wait through the dark 2004-2005 season before getting their first look at the Russian winger. His debut was worth the wait.

He announced his presence like a locomotive by registering a hit on his first NHL shift that drove Columbus Blue Jacket defenseman Radoslav Suchy in to the end boards, dislodging a stanchion holding a pane of glass in place and stopping play while repairs could be made. It would be in the second period that fans saw what they came to see, and what they would see over and over again in a career spanning 15 seasons, and counting – a one-timer from what would become his “office:”

Columbus regained the lead on a Dan Fritsche goal less than three minutes after Ovechkin’s strike, but Ovechkin knotted the game once more, on what would be his first career power play goal, less than two minutes after Fritsche’s goal. Dainius Zubrus scored the game-winning goal five minutes after Ovechkin scored, a fact that might be lost (along with Jeff Halpern’s three-assist night) in Ovechkin’s sparkling debut in the 3-2 Caps win.

Ovechkin’s was the first and, to date, only instance of a Capital rookie scoring two goals in his NHL debut, in a season opening game. It was also the first instance in which that first goal came in an NHL debut in a Capitals season opener on home ice.

The most recent instance in this category came on October 9, 2014. The Caps were coming off a disappointing 2013-2014 season in which they missed the playoffs, a disappointment that cost Adam Oates his position as head coach. In the season opener against the Montreal Canadiens to kick off the Barry Trotz era behind the bench, four rookies were in the lineup – Chris Brown, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Liam O’Brien, and Andre Burakovsky. Only one of them would record a goal.

Andre Burakovsky was an unexpected member of the Opening Night lineup, one year removed from his being drafted 23rd overall in the 2013 Entry Draft. A strong training camp was enough to give him an opportunity to show what he could do when it mattered, and he took advantage of that in his first NHL game. As play-by-play announcer Joe Beninati put it, “bang bang, it didn’t take long.” In the seventh minute, Troy Brouwer stripped Montreal defenseman P.K. Subban of the puck in the left wing corner. Collecting the puck, he centered it to Burakovsky all alone between the hash marks. Burakovsky ripped a one-timer past goalie Dustin Tokarski, and the Caps had a 1-0 lead 6:43 into the game.

Burakovsky would have a chance to do more, to become a unique addition to this group later in the contest. Montreal tied the game in the third period on a Tomas Plekanec goal, forcing overtime. When neither team scored in the five-minute extra frame, the game went to a shootout. Through three rounds, each team scored twice, sending the shootout to extra rounds. A scoreless fourth round forced a fifth round and Burakovsky’s first career chance in the freestyle competition. Burakovsky circled in and tried to go low on the blocker side on Tokarski, but the shot was foiled by Tokarski’s right pad:

Brendan Gallagher won the game for the Canadiens in the bottom of the fifth round, putting a damper on Burakovsky’s big night.

So there we have it. Four of the more gifted offensive performers in Capitals history getting their careers off to fast starts in their first games in a season opener. It is the stuff of which dreams are made.