Dale Hunter played 972 games for Washington, including playoffs. He scored 628 points for the Capitals, including playoffs. Both those totals rank fourth during the franchise’s 37 seasons.
But there’s no question that Hunter is best remembered for taking a pass from Larry Murphy and beating Philadelphia goalie Ron Hextall for the breakaway tally that completed a remarkable comeback from a 3-1 deficit in the 1988 Patrick Division Semifinals and a 3-0 deficit in the contest to win Game 7 at Capital Centre.
Notice that I wrote Patrick Division semifinals, not Eastern Conference semifinals. Those were the years when the Caps truly had division rivals. From 1982-93, Washington, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New Jersey, the New York Rangers and New York Islanders played each other seven or eight times apiece during the season before four of them went at it come April to decide who would emerge as the Patrick champion and earn a spot in the NHL’s final four.
The Caps survived that gauntlet just once, in 1990 by surprising the Devils (avenging a 1988 upset) and then the Rangers (avenging a 1986 shocker), but beginning in 1983, they made the playoffs every year. Caps-Islanders was a rite of spring from 1983-87. So was Caps-Penguins from 1991-93 (which fortunately for the NHL, but so fortunately for the Caps carried over into 1994-96 in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals).
Washington, Philadelphia, New Jersey and the Rangers played just minutes off I-95 in the Cap Centre, Spectrum, Brendan Byrne Arena and Madison Square Garden. Only the Garden remains, but the replacement buildings are still easily accessible for fans up and down the highway.
Reaching Nassau Coliseum, home of the Islanders, meant navigating the outer boroughs and half of Long Island but was still relatively close.
That left Pittsburgh as the only Patrick franchise that was more than three hours to the West of the East Coast’s spine, but it still made for about as condensed a six-team setup as is possible on a continent as vast as North America.
When Washington began competing in the Southeast Division in 1998 with Atlanta, Carolina, Florida and Tampa Bay, winning a regular season title became a lot easier, but the rivalries virtually ceased. Even the playoff showdowns with the Lightning in 2003 and 2011 didn’t come close to reaching the mutual antipathy displayed all those springs with the Penguins, Flyers and Rangers.
Tonight, Philadelphia visits Verizon Center for the first time since Hunter replaced Bruce Boudreau as Washington’s coach 15 days ago. The building should be rocking, especially if the Caps are smart enough to show Hunts’ goal that stunned the Flyers nearly 24 years ago.
More important, games like tonight’s will gloriously be the rule, not the exception, starting next year when the NHL realigns and recreates the Patrick Division (with the addition of the Hurricanes to accommodate the larger league) in an as-yet-unnamed conference.
It’s 511 miles from Raleigh, N.C. to Uniondale, N.Y., but the Caps won’t have to travel more than 250 miles to play any of their 36 conference games. Come playoff time, it will be just like the good old days in the rough and tumble Patrick Division with the top four teams battling for a berth in the Final Four, just the way Hunter liked it. And just the way, it should be in the NHL.
David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1975. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the author of the new book: “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan during the 2010 Redskins season, he returned to the station as its blogger in March.