While there aren’t many Washington Capitals traditions carried over from their days in Landover, there is one nearly annual ritual that remains over three decades from the team’s Capital Centre days — playing a home game on Super Bowl Sunday. The Capitals played three games on the same day as the Super Bowl before 1988, including one at the Capital Centre during the team’s first season in 1974-75, a 7-2 loss to the Montreal Canadiens. They also played a pair on the road, one in 1980 at Quebec that actually started during Super Bowl XIV, and one at Madison Square Garden after Super Bowl XVI ended in 1982.
But the Washington tradition really began on Jan. 31, 1988. The Capitals were scheduled to play the rival Philadelphia Flyers in a home game at 12:05 p.m. on the day of Super Bowl XXII, giving fans plenty of time to get home before kickoff. For Washington fans that year, that was a particularly memorable Super Bowl, with the Washington Redskins playing the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXII. But the NHL appetizer was also good for Capitals fans, with Kelly Miller beating Ron Hextall 3:27 into overtime for a 1-0 Washington win in front of a sellout crowd of 18,130 in Landover, just hours before the Redskins won the team’s second Super Bowl championship, 42-10.
With the interest in the city’s NHL club traditionally spiking after the NFL season ended in the Washington area in those days, it was a natural fit for the team to play at home Super Bowl Sunday. And it stuck. Even though the Redskins didn’t make the next year’s Super Bowl, the Capitals scheduled another afternoon matinee, again set for 12:05 p.m. to allow fans to stream out to Super Bowl parties afterwards.
Despite a 4-3 loss to the Detroit Red Wings, the game was quickly becoming one of the staples of the Capitals’ calendar, as another sellout crowd took advantage of the pre-party showcase. The next year, in 1990, the Caps bounced back to beat the Flyers on Super Bowl Sunday, and they wouldn’t lose another Super Bowl Sunday game for five years.
While the team’s other traditional home date — a New Year’s Day matinee — faded away, the Super Bowl Sunday game largely has held through the years. This year is no exception, with a game on NBC against those same Flyers, 33 years after the tradition began.
All together, Washington has played 30 games on Super Bowl Sunday, earning 17 wins, 11 losses and 2 ties, but have lost the last three dating back to a loss to the Vegas Golden Knights in 2018.
While the Canadiens also are known for playing at home on Super Bowl Sunday, Washington’s tradition predates the Habs’ start by three years, with Montreal kicking off its tradition in 1991 against the Boston Bruins. This Sunday will be Washington’s 28th game in the last 34 Super Bowl Sundays, missing games in just 1999, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2008, and having played on every Super Bowl Sunday dating back to 2009.
With that, here are some of the very memorable games the Capitals have played on Super Bowl Sunday through the years:
Jan. 31, 1988: Capitals vs. Flyers
Kelly Miller’s excellent individual effort capped off a goaltender’s duel between Pete Peeters and Ron Hextall, who stopped 28 and 35 shots respectively on the afternoon in what was Washington’s first Super Bowl Sunday win.
The game was notable as it was the first in Capitals history to go scoreless into overtime, and was Washington’s first extra-time win in nine tries that season. But the game ended just over three minutes into the extra session, as Miller collected a dump-in behind the Flyers’ net, and when a pair of Philadelphia defensemen chased Bob Gould, Miller beat Hextall for the only goal of the contest.
“Last year, the comments were that we couldn’t beat the Flyers,” Capitals coach Bryan Murray said to the Baltimore Sun afterwards. (“Caps win, 1-0 on Miller’s Goal in OT,” Baltimore Sun, Feb. 1, 1998) “If the game had ended 0-0, both teams would have been happy. It was a big effort by both teams.”
Jan. 27, 1991: Capitals vs. Islanders
Miller proved to be the Super Bowl Sunday hero again three years later, scoring an overtime goal with just 39 seconds left as the Capitals rallied from a two-goal deficit against the New York Islanders.
Washington scored just nine seconds Into the game — just one tick off the franchise record — but the Islanders then reeled off three goals for a 3-1 lead early in the second period. Dino Ciccarelli’s power-play goal cut the Capitals’ deficit to one, but Derek King gave the Islanders a 4-2 lead heading into the third.
Washington rallied in the final frame thanks to a goal by Miller less than four minutes into the third, then Ken Sabourin tied the game with less than 10 minutes to play — setting up Miller’s OT heroics.
“That’s a great comeback for us,” coach Terry Murray told the New York Times. “Certainly in the time that I’ve ben here, that’s the biggest comeback I’ve seen.”
Jan. 26, 1992: Capitals vs. Penguins
Just hours before the Redskins claimed the franchise’s third Vince Lombardi Trophy, the Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins put on an offensive showcase in Landover, each throwing 40 shots on goal in a 6-4 Washington win. Ciccarelli scored twice in the first period to stake the Caps to a 2-0 lead, but Bob Errey cut the deficit to one before the period was out. Al Iafrate upped Washington’s lead to 3-1 early in the middle frame, but then Mark Recchi, Jaromir Jagr and Larry Murphy scored in a 4:02 span to give the defending Cup champs the lead in the middle of the period.
With a late power play, Randy Burridge tied it late in the second, and John Druce scored the go-ahead goal in the third, with Miller recording an empty-netter with 59 ticks left. “The bottom line was how we played after getting back to 4-4,” coach Terry Murray told the Sun. (“Miller’s OT goal wins it for Capitals,” Baltimore Sun, Jan. 27, 1992) “It was a roller coaster to that point, then we played great two-way hockey.”
Jan. 30, 1994: Capitals vs. Red Wings
The 1993-94 Capitals were struggling to just qualify for the playoffs, while the Red Wings were coming to town on a nine-game road unbeaten streak which seemed like a mismatch akin to some Super Bowls.
The Capitals had just made a coaching change to try and turn around their season, hiring Jim Schoenfeld three days earlier, and the former ESPN analyst was making his US Air Arena debut. The team responded with a 6-3 win over the Red Wings, giving their new coach a two-game win streak as the team looked to get into the postseason with a new structure and work ethic.
John Slaney scored in the first for Washington, and after Detroit tied it 81 seconds into the second, Pat Peake, Miller and Dale Hunter scored to put the Caps up 4-1. Detroit pulled back within one, but Mike Ridley and Peter Bondra iced the game for the Capitals.
“It’s exciting right now,” Sylvain Cote told the Sun. “For us, having a new coach is like a writer having a new pen. You can’t wait to use it.”
Jan. 28, 1996: Capitals vs. Flyers
Once again, Miller was the overtime hero, but this time, it was thanks to an assist as he fed Steve Konowalchuk with a “spin-o-rama” pass for the game-winner with :38.9 left in the extra session. Washington dominated the bigger, more talented Flyers in front of another Super Bowl sellout in Landover, earning their first win over Philadelphia at home in nearly four years, and against them anywhere in just under two years.
Eric Lindros put Philadelphia up in the first, but was answered quickly by Konowalchuk. Shawn Antoski scored his first goal as a Flyer in the second, but Peake’s goal in the third forced overtime, setting up Konowalchuk’s winner. It also was the Capitals’ first win against former coach Murray.
“These streaks get started and the longer they go the harder they are to break,” Capitals coach Jim Schoenfeld told the Sun. “So I’m really happy to get rid of the Philadelphia ghost.”
Jan. 25, 1998: Capitals vs. Bruins
Washington’s first ever Super Bowl Sunday game downtown was also the debut of the new black Capitol Dome third jerseys, which became the team’s primary road jersey just over two years later.
Bill Ranford got a start against the club he was traded from the previous season, and one of the players traded for him, Anson Carter, struck first for Boston. But Phil Housley tied the game back up less than five minutes later, and Richard Zednik and Adam Oates — another player in the deal — put Washington in command before Bondra iced it for the Caps.
The win was Washington’s fifth straight at home, and seventh of eight overall. The team was getting healthy heading towards the Olympic break, in a year where they made their first-ever Stanley Cup Final run.
For Ranford, a chance to play for the resting Olie Kolzig was a plus. “It’s huge for me just to get into the game, win or lose,” he told AP. (“Caps’ Ranford sharp in rare start, 4-1 win,” Baltimore Sun, Jan. 26, 1998) “There was a little bit of butterflies going into the game.”
Feb. 4, 2007: Capitals vs. Islanders
After a four-year gap, the Super Bowl Sunday game returned, with Alexander Ovechkin making his first appearance in the series. Despite the young star’s debut, he was held to just one shot, but thanks to a shootout winner by Alexander Semin, the Capitals took a 2-1 win to snap a three-game skid.
Ovechkin, who had 33 goals coming into the contest, was held pointless for the first time in consecutive games, but Kolzig was solid with 31 saves to get the win. Matt Pettinger scored less than three minutes into the game to give the Capitals a lead that held for the first frame, but Mike Sillinger’s short-handed goal gave the Islanders a tie just 27 seconds into the second.
After a scoreless overtime, Semin deked and beat Rick DiPietro with a backhander on the first shot, then Kolzig kept the Islanders off the board for the win. “We will take these points. I’m happy we win,” Ovechkin told AP. “We lose eight in 10 and we forget what it feels like winning. This game was important to us.”
Feb. 7, 2010: Capitals vs. Penguins
Easily the most memorable game of the Super Bowl Sundays, not only for the game itself but the setting.
Two feet of snow fell on the Washington area the day before the game, forcing the Penguins to bus down from New Jersey in order to arrive for a national TV audience as NBC’s lead in to the Vancouver Olympics later that week. The Capitals were riding a 13-game win streak, the longest in franchise history, and Sidney Crosby and Ovechkin were the face of the upcoming tournament, which would be a cornerstone of that Winter Olympics.
The smaller crowd that could reach the arena due to the snowy conditions were rewarded for their efforts as the stars shined. Crosby led the Penguins to a 2-0 lead, and after Ovechkin cut the deficit to one, Jordan Staal boosted it to 4-1 before Eric Fehr cut it to one heading into the third.
But Ovechkin powered the Capitals in the third, scoring twice and getting his first hat trick in nearly a year, and then Mike Knuble delivered the game-winner in overtime for Washington’s 14th straight win, then the third longest in NHL history. It was the team’s 10th straight home win, and they were en route to their first-ever Presidents’ Trophy.
“You can tell when he’s having one of his days,” coach Bruce Boudreau told the Washington Post.” Days when I see that his recovery is unbelievable. He sits on the bench for 30 seconds and I know he wants to go again.”
Feb. 2, 2014: Capitals vs. Red Wings
While the visiting Red Wings did a good job keeping Ovechkin off the scoresheet in regulation, it couldn’t stop the star in overtime with a power play in a 6-5 Washington win. The Capitals lost a three-goal lead, fueled by goals from Jason Chimera, Joel Ward and John Carlson in the first, and another by Ward in the second to give Washington a 4-1 edge with five minutes left in the second.
But the Red Wings scored with 71 seconds left in the second and pulled even early in the third. Even after Troy Brouwer gave Washington a 5-4 lead, Detroit tied it back up less than two minutes later.
But with a chance with the extra-man in overtime, Ovechkin blasted a one-timer past Jimmy Howard, for his 15th career overtime winner, good for third-most in league history at the time.
“He’s pretty clutch,” Chimera told the Post of Ovechkin. “What a good shot. He’s our go-to-guy. When we need him, he’s there.”
The Tradition Continues
Sunday, the Capitals will take on the Flyers, who they first faced in 1988 in a new concept of home games on Super Bowl Sunday. Philadelphia been the opposition six times in that stretch, with Washington winning all six games against the orange and black. After Sunday, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh will have been the team the Caps have faced the most on Super Bowl Sunday with seven.
But instead of a sold-out Capital One Arena thanks to the pandemic, the game still will have a national broadcast audience on NBC. And if it’s like anything else in the series, it will be worth tuning in to. And will give NHL fans an appetizer before the NFL’s big game.
Author of a pair of Washington Capitals books, Transition Game and Red Rising, as well as a book on the American Hockey League, Chasing the Dream. Covered the Capitals and the NHL for the Washington Times, AOL Sports, Sporting News, SB Nation, Newsday, Tampa Tribune and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.