Before the Washington Capitals went on their Stanley Cup run in the spring of 2018, there was no doubt what was the most memorable goal during their four-decade history.
There were bigger goals scored since the team came into the NHL in 1974, and there were prettier goals, but one tally always stood out in all the vintage highlights: Dale Hunter’s overtime goal in Game 7 against Philadelphia on April 16, 1988.
“Murphy starts the rush… he hits Hunter… he’s in alone… a shot and a goal!” was the classic call by Washington’s play-by-play voice for Home Team Sports at the time, Mike Fornes.
Saturday (April 16) will be the 34th anniversary of that classic Patrick Division Semifinal Game 7 overtime contest between the Capitals and the Philadelphia Flyers at the Capital Centre, ended by Hunter’s shot that beat Ron Hextall 5:57 into overtime. The goal, coming just two days short of a full year of the team’s four-overtime marathon loss to the New York Islanders in a Game 7, sent the pom-pom-waving sellout crowd of 18,130 in Landover into a frenzy and gave the franchise its signature moment of that era, and one that lingers decades later in its fan base.
Two years after Hunter’s tally, John Druce scored an overtime goal (from “Druce finishes job, Capitals ice Patrick,” The Washington Post, 4/28/90) against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden in 1990 that sent the Capitals to their first-ever Wales Conference Final, and a decade later, Joe Juneau’s overtime goal (from “Deliverance: Caps surge to Finals,” The Washington Post, 6/5/98) in Game 6 against the Buffalo Sabres in 1998 to their first Stanley Cup Final. But the Hunter goal stood out more than those two other significant markers for a couple of reasons.
First of all, the moment came at home, when fans regularly dressed for “white-outs,” leaving the fans dressed in white shirts and jerseys contrasting with the dark, black walls of the team’s former home in Landover. Secondly, it was against the Flyers, a team that really was the team’s first big rival, who played just three hours north of Washington and sent busloads of orange-clad fans down Interstate 95 during Philadelphia’s heyday to Capitals games in Maryland. Lastly, it was a series-ending tally in overtime of the deciding game just a year after the team’s season ended in the early hours of the morning in the “Easter Epic.”
Hunter’s Arrival the Previous Summer
Following the loss to the Islanders in June of 1987, Washington made a bold move at the NHL Draft at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, sending the 15th overall pick (“Capitals, Nordiques trade 4,” The Washington Post, 6/14/87) to the Quebec Nordiques for a package that included Dale Hunter. The pick – which turned out to be Hall of Fame center Joe Sakic – still brought an important player in Washington’s history and one that hangs in the rafters of Capital One Arena today.
“That team had been built to beat the Flyers,” Fornes, who was at that draft, said in a recent phone interview with The Hockey Writers. “That was that trade that was made to do that. … The Capitals had the first-round pick, and that pick turned out to be Joe Sakic, and they traded that pick to Quebec and they got Dale Hunter.
“That was the reason that they were going to beat the Flyers, because they had Dale Hunter.”
Al Koken, who was doing color commentary for HTS and Channel 20 starting in 1984 and still is part of Washington’s broadcasts today on NBC Sports Washington, remembers how Hunter’s arrival changed the dynamic of the Capitals-Flyers rivalry, beginning with the team’s first visit to the Spectrum that October.
“What I first remember about Dale Hunter, they went into Philadelphia the very first time, and before they’d take runs at [Bob] Carpenter and [Bengt] Gustafsson and go at them and take them right out of the game,” Koken recalled in an interview with The Hockey Writers. “[Capitals coach] Bryan Murray made sure he put Dale Hunter to open the game and within 30 seconds, he and Rick Tocchet were having a stick duel.
“And after that, they didn’t have a problem in Philadelphia, because they had that guy who was first over the wall and said ‘guys follow me.’
Hunter changed the dynamic of what that team needed. It was astounding to see one guy who wanted the game to be played the way he played change the team. You always think of (him) being the rough, tough guy. But he was a great skill guy, great player, to be the ability to be the natural guy to replace [Rod] Langway as the captain, he had those leadership qualities.
They were a different team when Dale Hunter got here.”
Setting Up a Classic Game 7
Hunter did reset the rivalry with Philadelphia that season, as Washington won its first game at the Spectrum in over three years that October evening with Hunter’s battle with Tocchet, and recorded a 4-2 mark in the first six meetings that season.
The Capitals and Flyers were neck-and-neck down the stretch in the Patrick Division standings. While the Islanders edged both teams out to take the regular-season title, Washington and Philadelphia faced off at the Spectrum in the regular-season finale to decide who would have home ice in their first-round series. Both had identical 38-33-8 marks heading into the final contest, but Washington had the tiebreaker which would give them home ice with a win or tie.
In what proved to bit of a preview of their coming playoff series, the Flyers jumped out to a 2-0 edge early in the second period of the contest, a lead that they held at the halfway point of the third period. But Washington rallied in the game’s final seven minutes, as defenseman Garry Galley scored a pair of goals to give the Capitals a 2-2 tie – and home-ice advantage for the first-round matchup.
It didn’t take long for Philadelphia to wrestle home ice away once the series began, however, winning Game 1 in Washington by a count of 4-2 and after the Capitals squared the series in Game 2 with a 5-4 win of their own, the Flyers took command as the series shifted to Spectrum. Philadelphia beat the Capitals in Game 3, and then erased a 4-1 Washington lead in Game 4 in the game’s final 10 minutes of regulation, with Murray Craven’s overtime goal 78 seconds into the extra session putting the Caps on the brink of elimination.
The Capitals franchise had seen its share of playoff disappointment in the previous seasons, losing a 2-0 series lead in 1985 to the Islanders to be punctuated with three straight losses, a 2-1 series lead in 1986 to the New York Rangers that came undone with a blown lead in a Game 4 overtime loss in New York, and a 3-1 series lead to the Isles in 1987 that ended in the early hours of the morning in Game 7. As a result, there was a lot of pessimism about that year’s prospects.
The Capitals had two series victories in their history to that point, both sweeps of the old best-of-five series over the Flyers and Islanders, but Washington was 0-2 in best-of-sevens with the 1984 loss to the Islanders and the 1986 upset by the Rangers.
Washington came back after that seemingly crushing Game 4 loss and ended up taking control of the series with a pair of impressive wins. Facing elimination at home in Game 5, Washington built a 4-1 lead they wouldn’t relinquish and ended up grabbing a 5-2 win. The team then headed back up to the Spectrum for Game 6 and frustrated the Flyers with Philadelphia having a chance to win on home ice, and grabbed the equalizer in a 7-2 rout.
While the Capitals were looking to do what the Islanders did to them the previous year – erase a 3-1 series deficit for a win – the Flyers certainly still had some playoff pedigree at that point. Philadelphia, the previous season was just one win away from a Stanley Cup title, having had pushed the Edmonton Oilers from a 3-1 deficit to a Game 7 thanks to Conn Smythe winner Hextall’s efforts. At the same time, the Capitals were still trying to put the ‘Easter Epic’ behind them.
Another Capitals Comeback in Regulation
With the Capital Centre crowd roaring its approval with the white pom-poms as Game 7 began, the Capitals pressed Hextall early – who had struggled in the previous two losses – but the Flyers netminder responded with a series of saves that evoked memories of Islanders goalie Kelly Hrudey’s effort in that building a year before.
A spearing penalty on Grant Ledyard late in the first period opened the door for the visitors to silence the crowd with a five-minute power play for Philadelphia, and Tim Kerr scored his first goal of the series before the frame ended with a 1-0 lead at the intermission.
Early in the second period, the Flyers seemed to have punched their ticket to the second round, with Brian Propp scoring on a rebound past Washington’s Pete Peeters just 95 seconds into the period, and Mark Howe scoring on a wrist shot 84 seconds later for a 3-0 Philadelphia lead that quieted the crowd.
Those watching from the stands weren’t the only ones that were nervous.
“Let me honest about this; I’m not going to kid you,” Langway told Michael Wilbon after the contest (from “Hunter Did More Than End Game”, The Washington Post, 4/17/88.) “When it was 3-0, I thought we’d be blown out of the rink. Some guys were quiet, some were semi-scared. I’m sure some were semi-confident. You look at the young guys and you can’t tell what they’re thinking at a time like that. As a veteran, you know you’re scared, but you try to look and act confident.”
However, like the final game of the regular season, Galley sparked a Capitals comeback, as the reason Washington was at home for Game 7 put new life in the crowd with a slap shot past Hextall at the 6:42 mark to make the score 3-1. Just 80 seconds after Galley’s goal, Mike Ridley fought for a faceoff win in the Philadelphia zone from Peter Zezel, losing his glove before he was able to tap the puck to Kelly Miller, who slid the puck past Hextall to bring the Capitals within one.
At that point, the white pom-pom waving crowd began to regularly taunt the Flyers goaltender with the familiar “Hextall” chant, and minus the usual sizeable orange-clad contingent from the Delaware Valley in attendance – most likely a result of the team’s lackluster performance the previous two games and tickets for the Game 7 sold out in just 12 minutes after the Game 6 win – the energy had returned to Capital Centre.
Play settled down after the flurry of goals, but before the second period ended, Kevin Hatcher caught a Flyer clearing attempt just inside the blue line with his glove, then dropped the puck and blasted a slap shot low past Hextall to reset the score at 3-3. That goal fully erased the Philadelphia three-goal lead with his fifth of the series and sent the crowd buzzing into the intermission.
Just five minutes into the third period, Hunter gave Washington its first lead of the night, as he stopped a drive from the point by Galley then beat Hextall just in front of the crease; seemingly sending the Capitals through to the next round to face the New Jersey Devils in the Patrick Division Final.
But the Flyers answered back just 62 seconds later on a goal by Brad March, bringing back the memories of Bryan Trottier squaring Game 7 in the third period the previous year against Washington, and the blown lead in Game 4 of this series. What had been jubilation heading into the third period waned into nervous energy by both teams and the crowd, as the teams began to play more tentatively as regulation came to a close with a 4-4 score.
Overtime Brings Quick Relief for Washington
Unlike the year before, the game didn’t last four overtimes, but less than six minutes. Future Hall of Famer Mike Gartner nearly ended the game with a shot that hit the post on a rare overtime power play, while Philadelphia had its own scoring chance by Brian Propp while shorthanded. The Capitals hit three posts in the first few minutes of overtime and seemingly couldn’t get the series-winner when Hextall made perhaps his best save of the series by stopping Peter Sundstrom’s feed from Gartner on a 2-on-0 with a terrific stop to keep play going.
“What’s it going to take?” an exasperated Fornes said on the HTS broadcast. But the Capitals didn’t have to wait much longer for the Capitals to finally break through.
Hunter’s acquisition paid dividends for the Capitals just as the clock wound towards the six-minute mark. Another Future Hall of Famer on that team, Larry Murphy, stick-checked the puck from a rushing Craven at the Washington blue line as Hunter began to turn through the center circle. Spotting Hunter, Murphy then fed the streaking center, who split between the pair of Flyers defensemen and then snapped the puck past Hextall to send the Capitals into the second round.
The goal sent the crowd into a frenzy, unleashing years of playoff frustration, as one of the most memorable television shots was of former Washington radio voice Ron Weber, who had never missed a game in the team’s history, celebrating on his feet and pumping his fist in a sea of waving pom-poms as the Capitals mobbed Hunter in the corner of the ice.
“The monkey is finally off their backs… the Washington Capitals have won a big game,” Fornes declared during the bedlam after the goal. “Somehow everything that happened one year ago tonight is all worthwhile, it’s like dues that had to be paid.”
“We’re not chokers, anyways,” a laughing Hunter told HTS’ Jeff Rimer – who is now the Columbus Blue Jackets’ play-by-play announcer – as he came off the ice.
“After we lost the game in Philadelphia and lost the game in overtime, everybody had pretty much written us off,” Murray told Rimer in the postgame show. “I think it proves they are winners.”
“[Hunter] was the guy that they were talking about and upset with… size didn’t matter to him,” he added. “This is what we wanted from him, and glad David [Poile] made the trade.”
34 years after his original call, Fornes, the man who crafted it, remembered the moment fondly.
“It was a terrific thing. It pushed the team out of that first round,” Fornes recalled years later. ”What a hard-nosed gutsy player and a terrific team guy, and when you think about that goal being so memorable, it really gave the team respect. It gave vindication. All the demons were gone after that.
“It’s like if you were a Caps fan, you could finally hold your head up high because we had done it, we had beaten the Flyers. Flyer fans used to come into the Capital Centre and parade around the building and do their chants. It was tough to be a Capitals fan.
“There was no way you thought it would go to overtime in that series, but sure enough, it did. And a lot of people thought ‘here we go again.’ It’s going to be the same thing as in the past. ‘Great regular season, but nothing in the playoffs.’ All of a sudden Dale Hunter scored that goal on Ron Hextall and it changed everything. It really gave everyone a reason to believe.”
After the Flyers Series
The payoff for the win wasn’t immediate, as Langway was injured in Game 1 of the Patrick Division Final and Washington fell to New Jersey in another seven-game series. After losing to Philadelphia in 1989, the Capitals made their longest playoff run to date in 1990, beating the Devils and Rangers for the team’s first Patrick Division playoff title.
Hunter, of course, remained a Capital until 1999, and he was also part of the 1998 team that reached the Stanley Cup Final for the first time. He also returned as the team’s coach in 2011 and was behind the bench for Washington’s only other Game 7 overtime winner, as Joel Ward scored in Boston to eliminate the defending Stanley Cup champion in 2012.
That 1987 trade also brought a moment that is etched into Capitals fans’ memories ever since that April night in 1988.
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.