Washington. Oh, Washington. You look at a place like this and you think to yourself, can't these guys do ANYTHING right? Look at Congress, look at the city's crime rate during the 90's, look at the general state of the city's sports teams. Okay, well, I don't mean the teams NOW - not the Nationals and Redskins anyway - but overall. Two baseball teams left, the Redskins have been losers by and large who only integrated in 1961 under the threat of federal intervention, and the Wizards' only big hit after the 70's was signing an over-the-hill Michael Jordan. Then there's the Capitals. I won't get into the fact here that the team spells "Capitals" with an A there, implying they named themselves after a word for money, instead of "Capitols," with an O, which means a place. (Which, when you think about it, explains a lot.)
The first round of NHL expansions was finished in 1974 with the arrival of the Kansas City Scouts and Washington Capitals. Between the time expansions began in 1967 and 1974, when they first ended, the NHL more than doubled in size, adding the Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Los Angeles Kings, Oakland Seals, Minnesota North Stars, and St. Louis Blues in 1967; the Buffalo Sabres and Vancouver Canucks in 1969; the New York Islanders and Atlanta Flames in 1972; and now these guys. Plus there was the World Hockey Association to compete with the NHL, whose merger with the NHL in 1979 would result in the additions of four more teams. Naturally, with all these weird new teams roaming around the major leaguer professional hockey landscape, talent was now being stretched to ridiculously thin lengths. The first move Capitals owner Abe Pollin made was to hire Boston Bruins legend Milt Schmidt as the general manager of the Caps, which was a smart move on paper. Schmidt had a name in the league. The year of the Capitals' creation, the Bruins had won five Stanley Cups, and Schmidt had been with them for four of them - 1939 and 1941 as a player, and as general manager of the Big Bad Bruins teams in 1970 and 1972. So, yeah, Milt Schmidt definitely had a working hockey brain.
Unfortunately, the thin talent was really taking a toll on the constant expansions. In their inaugural season, the Washington Capitals finished with a record of 8-67-5, good for 21 points. For comparison, their expansion-mate Scouts, who are still also one of the worst teams ever fielded, managed to put 42 points on their board. For an NHL team playing at least 70 games in a single season, that remains the standard of futility. The Capitals are the 1962 New York Mets of hockey. That year, they set records by losing 39 of their 40 road games and most consecutive losses with 17. By the time their streak of losses finally ended, at least the team had a sense of humor about it - upon finally winning again, the Capitals hauled out a large green trash can and waved it around over their heads, like the Stanley Cup. The team coach, Jim Anderson, went on record saying, "I'd rather find out my wife was cheating on me than keep losing like this. At least I could tell my wife to cut it out." The only team to even get close to those depths is the Winnipeg Jets of the 1981 season. They went 9-57-14. Those ties spoiled their run at history.
In their second season, the Capitals improved, although in this case the meaning of "improved" is relative: They went 11-59-10 for 32 points. The Kansas City Scouts were very nearly as bad again too, but in the two years the Scouts existed in Kansas City, their worst record wasn't as bad as either of Washington's first two records. They went 25 straight games without a win, allowed a whopping 394 goals, replaced their GM and head coach in the middle of the season, and, well…. I think that record speaks for itself.
'Tis the story of the Washington Capitals during their first eight years or so. Sometimes they were dreadful. Other times, like in 1980 and 1981, they were right in contention until the very last day of the season. And "in contention" up there is relative: I mean they were in contention for a playoff spot, not the Stanley Cup or anything. General manager Max McNab was making fairly smart draft picks, though, and they came to impact the team in positive ways. Still, it didn't stop talk of the Caps leaving The District from emerging in 1982. What do you expect? Who would want to ever see a team like this? Well, okay, I would want to, but only out of sheer, morbid curiosity. A Save the Caps campaign got started up, but in the case of the Capitals, what came to rescue their hapless asses actually took place on the ice rather than off it. First, David Poile was brought in as general manager. The first thing Poile did was make the frnchise-saving trade: Ryan Walter and Rick Green to the Montreal Canadiens for Rod Langway, Brian Engblom, Doug Jarvis, and Craig Laughlin. Then in the 1982 amateur draft, he grabbed Scott Stevens.
While Langway and Stevens patrolled the blue line, the Caps created an attack centered around Dennis Maruk, Mike Gartner, and Bobby Carpenter. The team jumped 29 points, finished third in a Patrick division which included the Flyers and Isles, and made the playoffs for the first time ever. They lost in the first round to the eventual Champion Islanders, but everyone talking about the next home of the Capitals shut their yaps. The team went on to make the playoffs for the next 14 years in a row. By 1986, they were 50-win, 100+ point finishers. They were getting stars to come through: Dave Christian, Dino Ciccarelli, Larry Murphy, and Kevin Hatcher. But they also fell into one of those inexplicable patterns no one can ever seem to crack or explain: Start slow, get hot in January, get booted from the playoffs in the first round. Second round if it was an especially good year. In that 1986 season, for example, the Caps managed to beat the Islanders in the first round, but the New York Rangers beat them in the second round. In 1987, the Capitals played in the Easter Epic against the Islanders. They had dominated through most of the game, outshooting the Isles 75-52, but by the time the game finally ended on Easter Sunday at 1:56 AM, the Isles emerged victorious when Pat LaFontaine scored the winner on a shot from the blue line.
By 1990, the Washington Capitals were finally playing in a Wales Conference Final series. They didn't last very long against the Ray Bourque and Cam Neely Bruins, who promptly swept them. The team generally wavered up and down throughout the 90's. They started the decade as a team which regularly won over 40 games, but that started to taper off during the second half of the decade. Sometimes, they were legitimately great. Others, they were merely good. They managed to find players like Olie Kolzig, Sergei Gonchar, Dale Hunter, Phil Housley, Adam Oates, and their all-time leading goal scorer, Peter Bondra.
Despite the point drop-off, in 1998 the Capitals finally gave their fans a success worth talking about. They went 40-30-12 for 92 points. They went to the playoffs, where they faced the Bruins in the first round. The Bruins series may be the most epic six-game series ever played. Three of the games ran into overtime, two into double overtime. In round two, the Ottawa Senators came to have at them. Washington won in five. The Eastern Conference Finals brought the Capitals against the Buffalo Sabres, who were then the youngest team in the league in terms of collective age. The Capitals were the oldest in collective age, so Buffalo's fresh, hip club was able to run through another six-game epic. But in the end, Washington's experience won the day in a series which featured three overtime games. (Those were Buffalo's trademark back then.) It finally ended in a sixth-game overtime, when Joe Juneau rose up and put one past Buffalo's Dominick Hasek, then known all around as the best goalie in the league.
The Washington Capitals were now in the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time ever, but there was just one problem: The Detroit Red Wings. Known to one and all as the league dynamo, the Red Wings had posted 103 points, more than any other team except the Dallas Stars and New Jersey Devils. They had to beat the Stars in the Western Conference Finals to get to the Finals, and so after that, they weren't about to let the Caps take a pity victory. Detroit won hands down. It took four games.
To open the millennium, the Capitals won their division in back to back years in 2000 and 2001. Both years, they lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Pittsburgh Penguins. After the 2001 season, the frustrated team Captain, Adam Oates, demanded a trade. The Caps told him to shove his trade where the sun don't shine and stripped him of the Captaincy. After signed Jaromir Jagr to the largest NHL contract ever - $77 million over seven years - the Caps then trade Oates anyway. 2002 brought Jagr's old Pittsburgh lineman, Robert Lang. In 2003, the Caps returned to the playoffs after missing out in 2002, but they lost in the first round again, this time to the Tampa Bay Lightning. What the team was trying to do now was build a good team using high-priced veterans. By the 2004 season, management finally got smarterer and acknowledged it wasn't working, so you know what came next: Let the talent jettisoning begin! Jagr was sent to the Rangers - who were trying the same building strategy the Caps were failing at - Bondra was handed off to Ottawa, Lang went to Detroit, and Gonchar to Boston. Here's how desperate the Capitals were getting: When Lang was traded, he was the league's leading scorer, and it was the middle of the season. After the season, the Capitals were tied for the league's second worst record with the Chicago Blackhawks.
You know what that means: Draft lottery time! The Caps won and got to move ahead of everyone else. Their pick was a Russian named Alexander Ovechkin. When the 2005 lockout ended, Ovechkin took center stage in another building effort. He went above and beyond his hype, and surprised the league by playing at a level equal to - and sometimes even greater than - that of heralded Pittsburgh rookie Sidney Crosby. The clear star of the Washington Capitals, Ovechkin took the team on a turnaround in 2008, when they made the playoffs, fell behind 3-1 against the Philadelphia Flyers, and forced a seventh game before going down. The next two years brought the team to dominance. In 2010, the Caps won the Presidents' Trophy and were chic Stanley Cup picks. At least until the first round of the playoffs, where they were stunned by the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens. The next year, the Caps were the best team in the Eastern Conference until they were swept in the second round of the playoffs by the Lightning. This has been their thing as of late - great regular seasons punctuated by poor playoff showings.
Washington's roster of retired numbers includes Rod Langway, Yvon Labre, Mike Gartner, and Dale Hunter. Some of their other all-time roster players are Adam Oates, Scott Stevens, Larry Murphy, and Dino Ciccarelli. Their current face and fearless leader is Alexander Ovechkin, whom the team will be fucking stupid to let go of. Ovechkin is already third on the Caps' all-time scoring leader list, just behind Peter Bondra and Mike Gartner.
The Caps have only one big name rival at the moment, and it's the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Pens and Caps have the two brightest shinging stars in the league - Washington has Ovechkin, and Pittsburgh has Sidney Crosby, probably the most popular player in the league right now. They've played against each other in the playoffs eight times. Pittsburgh won all of those meeting except one, in 1994. What really makes it crazy is the fact that in seven of those series, Pittsburgh trailed at one point or another, but has kept coming back to win. It's no wonder these two teams met in the Winter Classic. The Caps' defining moments include the Easter Epic and the 1998 Conference Championship, but they're also one of the few teams to be defined by losses. Way back in the 70's, the Caps were arguable the worst team to ever lace 'em up.
Don't get used to winning very much with the Washington Capitals. They do great during the regular season, but come the playoffs, it's very rare they don't sputter out sometime along the line. They've underachieved in the playoffs since the arrival of Ovechkin. Ovechkin, while looking like an all-time great, just up and disappears in the playoffs most of the time. Even the one time they didn't choke and went all the way to the Finals, their series against the Red Wings wasn't as close as it looked, even though it was a sweep, and even if that sweep did involve more than one single-goal differential. The team can also be found be looking at teams in search of an iconic sweater logo. They've released several decent ones since the mid-90's - an eagle, a picture of the Capitol Building dome, and a different form of eagle, but what the team seems to be going with is just a font saying "Washington Capitals."
The Washington Capitals bandwagon may look appealing now, but just wait until the playoffs. They'll be one and done until Alexander Ovechkin finally gives us a playoff performance for the ages. Also, he could probably use a bit more help for that to happen. The NHL playoffs are a gauntlet. Even Wayne Gretzky couldn't win the Stanley Cup all by himself.