After missing the playoffs in 1997 for the first time in 15 years, the Capitals began the 1998 season under the new leadership duo of general manager George McPhee and coach Ron Wilson.
Washington lost expected No. 1 goalie Bill Ranford to a groin injury in the opener. Olie Kolzig, who had 174 minor league games on his resume to just 71 in the NHL at age 27, took over between the pipes.
“I thought it was a solid team, if a little bit older,” said McPhee, still on the job 16 years after coming to Washington. “It just needed some sort of shot in the arm. The shot in the arm was Olie.”
Kolzig played so well with a 33-18-10 record and a 2.20 goals-against average, that Ranford was virtually forgotten. But don’t forget the defensive corps of Calle Johansson, Sergei Gonchar, Phil Housley, Mark Tinordi, Joe Reekie, Brendan Witt and Ken Klee.
“Our defense was fantastic,” said Kolzig, now the Caps’ goalie coach. “Everyone wants to give me a lot of the credit for that playoff run, but I never had a defense like that again [during the ensuing nine years].”
Washington’s offense wasn’t as dynamic. Only right wing Peter Bondra scored more than 18 goals and only Bondra and center Adam Oates produced more than 35 points as the Caps finished third in the Atlantic Division behind New Jersey and Philadelphia.
“We had been playing for Jim Schoenfeld, a tough, old-school coach,” Kolzig said.”Practices were hard and they were long. Come the playoffs, guys were just worn out and tired. When Wilson and his staff came in, it was a different approach. We had shorter practices, not easier but faster. We had days off which we hadn’t really had. We weren’t dead at the end of the season.”
However, since the 1994 opening-round upset of Pittsburgh had been Washington’s only playoff series triumph in the past six years, not much was expected when the Caps began postseason against Boston.
And yet, the team that included 13 veterans of at least two unhappy Washington postseasons not only beat the Bruins, it went on to top Ottawa and Buffalo to advance to the first – and still only – Stanley Cup finals of the franchise’s 39 seasons.
“We had a lot of injuries during the season and still managed to play well,” said McPhee, who tried to bolster the scoring by adding veteran forwards Brian Bellows and Esa Tikkanen in March. “We thought we could be a good squad if we could ever get healthy and we seemed to be getting healthy just as we were going into the playoffs.”
The elimination of the conference’s top three seeds – the Devils, Penguins and Flyers – in the first round was also a healthy development.
“We didn’t play Pittsburgh which helped because our track record against the Penguins obviously wasn’t great,” Kolzig said. “We had a 3-1 lead against Boston and not everyone in D.C. was overly excited. They had seen this show before and were waiting for us to collapse. We lost Game 5 [at home] and everyone’s saying, ‘Here we go again,’ but we found a way to get through that first round. Once we did that, we didn’t worry about the critics, we just played hockey.”
Washington could easily have gone down against Boston, which seemingly won Game 3 on home ice only to have the winning goal disallowed because the toe of Tim Taylor’s skate was in the crease. The Caps won on an overtime goal by Joe Juneau and a week later won Game 6 and the series on Bellows’ double-overtime rebound score.
Feeling confident, Washington overwhelmed Ottawa in five games, winning the final two on shutouts by Kolzig.
“We lost game 3 in Ottawa and in Game 4, they outshot us 36-11, but Olie was just phenomenal and Gonchar scored [shorthanded before a late empty-net goal] and we won 2-0,” McPhee recalled. “It’s the same old story. If you want to go far in the playoffs, your goaltending has to be great. It can’t just be good, very often. It has to be great. And Olie was great. We were pretty excited to be in the conference finals. Buffalo had real good speed and they had [Dominik Hasek] who was the best goalie in the world, but our guy outplayed him.”
After Hasek recorded a 2-0 shutout in the opener in new MCI Center, the Caps won consecutive overtime games on goals by Todd Krygier, who had scored twice all season, and Bondra, whose blast shredded the glove of the Sabres’ standout netminder. Washington took a 3-1 lead in series, but lost Game 5 at home (again) before Juneau made history by beating Hasek on a rebound of Bellows’ shot. The celebration that began in Buffalo continued even after the Caps landed back at BWI.
“When we drove back to Piney Orchard to get our cars, there were cars parked for several blocks leading to the rink, there were people in the streets,” McPhee remembered. “We didn’t realize it was for us.”
Added Kolzig, “The building was packed. It was like a pep rally. It was unbelievable. That night was our Stanley Cup, the way the city fell in love with us.”
Until the finals got going, that is. Detroit was aiming to be the just the second repeat champion in a decade. Legendary coach Scotty Bowman’s team included Hall of Famers Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, Larry Murphy, Slava Fetisov and Igor Larionov.
Host Detroit won the opener 2-1, but Washington had a 4-2 lead in Game 2 when Tikkanen intercepted a pass, faked goalie Chris Osgood to the ice but then failed to bury the gimme. The relieved Red Wings scored twice to tie the game and won in overtime.
“Detroit was maybe one of the best teams ever, but they weren’t playing as well at home as they were on the road and we thought if we could get one early from them, we could make it a series,” McPhee said. “When Tikkanen missed the open net, that was the turning point.”
Or as Kolzig said after that blown chance, “There was that thought that maybe we couldn’t beat Detroit.”
When the teams took the ice in Washington 15 years ago tonight for Game 3, MCI Center’s lower bowl was chock full of Red Wings fans. The Caps were outshot 34-18 and lost 2-1.
“That was probably the worst thing I’ve experienced in hockey,” McPhee bristled. “You shouldn’t be selling tickets to your opponents. We had people selling tickets to travel agencies in Detroit. I really had to do some soul-searching because I wasn’t sure if this was the place I wanted to be if that’s the way things were going to be done. [Caps president] Dick Patrick was the difference-maker. He was confident that things were going to be fine in the near-future and they were.”
Frustrated at the lack of support and by losing three straight one-goal games to the champs, the Caps fell 4-1 in Game 4 for the sweep. But as Kolzig said, there was no disgrace in losing to such a superb team. Surely, Washington would be back in the finals soon. Of course, despite eight seasons with two-time MVP Alex Ovechkin as their centerpiece, the Caps haven’t even returned to the conference finals since.
“You’re thinking, ‘OK, this is our first time here. We’ll win it the next time,’ “ Kolzig recalled. “You don’t realize how hard it is to get there. That we never went past the first round after that [until 2009 when he was an ex-Cap] is so disappointing. I tell the young guys now that if you have the opportunity, win it now because you never know when you’re going to be back.”
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin