Caps' Stanley Cup dreams ranneth over in 1986, too

Phil Jackman

April 20, 1992|By Phil Jackman

`TC Once before, in the relatively short 18-year history of NHL hockey in these parts, fans have dreamed the dream of a Stanley Cup landing in their midst.

It was 1986 and the Washington Capitals had just swept to their best season ever, winning 50 games and being next to unbeatable at home (30-8-2).

The Caps seemed to have everything: Nine players had 53 or more points and there were scorers aplenty, Dave Christian leading the way with 41 goals.

Despite missing more than a few games, Mike Gartner had 34 goals, Alan Haworth 34 and Craig Laughlin 30. Stepping up from the defense when the situation warranted, Larry Murphy had 21 scores, Scott Stevens 15 and Kevin Hatcher nine.

Gaetan Duchesne and Bobby Gould not only killed penalties expertly, they stuck to the opposing team's star like flypaper. The latter, for instance, allowed Edmonton's Wayne Gretzky just one goal in three games.

Behind a defense that allowed the second-fewest goals in the league, Al Jensen and Pete Peeters had split the goaltending with Jensen going 28-9 and Peeters 19-11.

If the Caps had a lead in the second half of games, they were virtually impossible to overtake as former Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Rod Langway and a legion of tight-checking forwards shut things down almost totally.

Circumstances looked even rosier when, in their first series, the Capitals blew away their old-time nemesis New York Islanders in three straight games. The Isles scored just four goals in three games.

Two other teams had turned in magnificent seasons also -- two-time defending champion Edmonton garnering 119 points with a 56-17-7 record and the Philadelphia Flyers winning the Patrick Division with a 53-23-4 record and 110 points.

Philly, though, ran afoul of the New York Rangers in the first round and was eliminated over the best-of-five route. Next, heavily favored Edmonton was eliminated by Calgary and the Washington organization had every reason to conclude that fate, destiny or whatever had adorned one of its sweaters.

The Caps lost their first division final game against the Rangers in overtime, 4-3, but things seemed to be well in hand when the club romped in the next two contests, 8-1 and 6-3.

In Game 4 in New York, once again the Caps had the Broadway Blues on the run, leading by two goals in the third period, a comfortable margin with the end of the game in sight. Forget it.

Shockingly, the favorites lost in overtime, but at least they were coming home, where their record for the year stood at 33-9. They lost again, 4-2, then were closed out in Madison Square Garden in six games, 2-1.

The reason one could not hear a pin drop in the silence of the Washington locker room after those three devastating setbacks was because it was drowned out by the sound of opportunity scurrying out the door.

The Rangers were no match for the Adams Division champion Montreal Canadiens, bowing out in four games. This only served to infuriate the Caps more. They had been near perfect in their season set with the Habs, winning two and tying the other.

When Montreal, which had finished second in its division during the regular season and had been barely able to squeeze by Hartford to reach the semifinals, whipped Calgary for the Cup, 4-1, a day of mourning was ordered at the Capital Centre.

For too many years, the Stanley Cup stood all but out of reach for mere mortals as dynasties were abuild in Montreal (1976-77-78-79), New York (1980-81-82-83) and Edmonton (1984-85-87-89). There was just one real window of opportunity in all that time and the Caps just weren't up to the opportunity.

The players and everyone else involved have held steadfastly that the blown opportunity six years ago had a long-standing effect. But, immediately afterward, the Caps tumbled to the second level of the NHL, thence to .500 records the two years prior to this season.

This season, with an attack even deeper and more diversified than at any time in club history, an experienced (if somewhat inconsistent) defense and perhaps their best playoff goalie ever, the golden opportunity is again at hand. And the Caps and even the most skeptical fans are thinking Cup again.

Despite finishing second in the overall standings to the Rangers, oddsmakers have Washington a distant eighth choice among 16 teams to go all the way. At least as the Caps began their playoff series with a 3-1 victory against Pittsburgh last night, they weren't saddled with a favorite's role.

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