Since joining the NHL in 1974, the Washington Capitals have seen a roller coaster of emotions over the decades, from being the league’s all-time worst club in their first season to claiming their first Stanley Cup championship in 2018.
With highs and lows, here are 10 of the most memorable Capitals teams ever, some for their regular-season prowess, while others for their postseason runs — and in a couple of cases, both, picked by someone who has seen all these clubs in action.
10. 1982-83: Washington Saves the Caps, Langway Saves the Franchise
For the first eight seasons, the Capitals were a bad team, and it seemed after the 1981-82 season — in which Washington missed the playoffs where 16 of 21 teams qualified — the team might never get a chance to get to be a winner.
With attendance flagging in Washington with the team’s lack of success and rumors it would be merged with the Colorado Rockies in East Rutherford, NJ and become the Devils, owner Abe Pollin started the “Save the Caps” campaign in summer of 1982 to boost the team’s ticket sales. Fans responded, selling out the 18,130-seat Capital Centre for the team’s least attractive home dates early in the season, and securing the team’s spot in the D.C. sports scene.
Just before training camp began, the team made two significant changes that would impact the franchise for years to come. First, on Aug. 27, they hired Calgary Flames assistant David Poile to be the team’s new general manager. Two weeks after that hire, Poile then made a huge splash, trading for Montreal Canadiens defenseman Rod Langway to anchor the defense.
With Langway in the fold, the Capitals shattered the team mark for wins in a season (39), fewest losses (25) and points (94). More importantly, they qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in team history. Langway won the first of two Norris Trophies for his work that season, as while the future Hall of Famer wasn’t known for his offensive prowess, his defensive stature helped limit the team to just 283 goals against, which was a franchise record at the time.
The 1982-83 Capitals were an important transition team for the franchise, as the team finally became a playoff club after eight straight seasons of missing the cut, and cementing the team’s place in the Washington sports scene as fans began to respond to the on-ice success.
9. 1987-88: Hunter’s Arrival Helps Capitals Past Flyers
The 1987-88 Capitals came into their season defined by the disappointing end to their 1986-87 season in the wee hours of the morning on Easter Sunday at the hands of Pat Lafontaine and the New York Islanders. As a response to that Game 7 loss, Poile went out and acquired a big-game player during the 1987 Draft with a trade from the Quebec Nordiques: Dale Hunter.
While the Capitals weren’t overly impressive during the regular season — they were below .500 in early February — the team began to hit its stride by winning 11 of 12 games to secure a playoff berth. In the season finale with home ice in the first round on the line, Washington erased a 2-0 deficit at the Spectrum for a 2-2 tie and earned what turned out to be an important advantage over the Philadelphia Flyers.
The Flyers series didn’t look like it would last long early, as it seemed to get away from the Capitals quickly. The defending Prince of Wales Trophy champions took Game 1 in Landover to take away home ice, and after Washington won Game 2, the Flyers took a pair of wins in Philadelphia for a 3-1 series lead, including what seemed to be a devastating Game 4 loss where the Capitals blew a 4-1 lead and lost on Murray Craven’s goal 78 seconds into overtime.
One year after blowing a 3-1 series lead to the Islanders, Washington rallied to square the series with a pair of convincing wins taking Game 5 5-2 and Game 6 by a 7-2 margin. In Game 7 at the Capital Centre, Washington fell down in a 3-0 hole, before rallying for four straight goals before the Flyers forced overtime. That’s when Poile’s acquisition of Hunter paid off, as the center beat Ron Hextall on a breakaway in overtime — one of the franchise’s most memorable moments as the team mobbed him in the corner with 18,130 fans forgetting the disappointment of a season before.
While the next series didn’t turn out as the team had hoped, with the Capitals falling short against the upstart New Jersey Devils in seven games, the lasting memory of the season is still of Hunter breaking in and beating Hextall five-hole in overtime of that deciding game.
8. 1991-92: Offense, Beaupre Power the Capitals
The 1991-92 Capitals were a club that could score goals — 330 for the regular season — and were not shut out once over 80 regular-season games. Led by Dino Ciccarelli’s 38 goals, the team also had six other skaters reach the 20-goal mark that season, with Dimitri Khristich (36), Mike Ridley (29), Hunter (28), Michal Pivonka and Randy Burridge (23 apiece).
Goaltender Don Beaupre also turned in his best season during his stint as a Capital, earning an All-Star nod as well as earning a career-high 29 wins for Washington that season. Burridge, who was acquired in June from the Boston Bruins for Steve Leach, joined Beaupre in Philadelphia for the All-Star Game as he set a career-best mark in points with 58.
Stung by the loss of Scott Stevens to free agency during the 1990 offseason, the team rebounded nicely from a lackluster 1990-91 campaign and recorded 98 points in 1991-92. It was the team’s best point total since 1985-86, and what turned out to be its highest total until the turn of the century.
In what was the NHL’s 75th Anniversary season, Washington finished tied for second in the league standings overall with the Detroit Red Wings, trailing only the New York Rangers. But unfortunately for the Capitals, a strong run towards the end of the regular season was halted in late March due to a players’ strike, and when the season resumed two weeks later, the team had struggled to hit their stride again.
In the last three regular-season games, the team went 1-1-1, and then lost a 3-1 series lead to the eventual champion Penguins, leaving the Capitals to wonder what might have been had the season not paused.
7. 2007-08: Ovechkin, Capitals Arrive With Late Push
While the 2007-08 season started off with high hopes as Washington was expected to finish its rebuilding job that started after the 2004-05 NHL lockout, those hopes were dashed by a 6-14-1 start that cost coach Glen Hanlon his job on Thanksgiving. However, thanks to a new coach from the Hershey Bears named Bruce Boudreau, the Capitals enjoyed one of the most improbable races to the wire in team history.
Boudreau quickly introduced an up-tempo style that played to Alexander Ovechkin’s strengths and the Russian responded with 51 goals in 61 games after the coaching change, including a pair of four-goal games and another hat trick. Ovechkin finished the year with 65 goals — still a career best — and he won his first Hart Trophy as league MVP.
More importantly, the Capitals’ season recovered so the team was in contention for the playoffs. While the team narrowed the gap, it was seemingly out of reach after a tough-luck loss to Pittsburgh on March 9, when the team was six points out with a dozen to play. However, Washington managed to win 11 of those 12 games — including a 3-1 win over the Florida Panthers in the season finale at home that carried a playoff atmosphere — to edge out the Carolina Hurricanes for the Southeast Division title and clinch the first playoff berth since the team underwent a rebuild in 2003.
The season marked Ovechkin’s first playoff appearance, the beginning of a now dozen-year stretch with the Capitals as a Stanley Cup contender, and also sparked interest in the team that hadn’t been seen since the 1998 Stanley Cup Final run.
In the end, the team cooled off after the strong playoff push, and while the Capitals fought back from a 3-1 series deficit against the Flyers, they fell in Game 7 in overtime. However, the lasting memory of the season wasn’t one of disappointment, but one of an organization and star on the rise.
6. 2015-16: Holtby’s Heroics Power Capitals
During head coach Barry Trotz’s first season in 2014-15, the Capitals came a goal away from the Conference Final. In his second year behind the Capitals bench, the team showed its regular-season prowess.
Washington set a record for wins (56) in 2015-16, and was one shy of the team record for points (120). It also captured the Presidents’ Trophy for best regular-season point total for the second time that decade.
The linchpin for the Capitals’ success that year was goaltender Braden Holtby, who tied Martin Brodeur’s NHL mark with 48 wins in a season, and posted a .922 save percentage, capturing the Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goaltender.
Forward Evgeny Kuznetsov had a breakout campaign as well, recording 77 points to lead the team in points during just his second full season in North America. Ovechkin scored 50 in 79 games, while Nicklas Backstrom posted 70 points in 75 games.
Unfortunately for the Capitals, the stellar regular season ended in playoff disappointment at the hands of a familiar foe. After roaring to a 3-0 series lead over the Flyers, the Capitals sputtered and needed to win a one-goal game in Game 6 to advance. Faced against their nemesis Penguins for the first time since 2009 in the second round, the Capitals dropped the series in six for a sour ending.
5. 2009-10: A Roaring Campaign Stopped by Halak
The 2009-10 Capitals team was perhaps the biggest paradox in franchise history, with Washington’s best regular season ever coupled with its most crushing playoff disappointment ever.
Simply put, the regular-season team was a juggernaut, recording 121 points and finishing 38 points ahead of the second-place Atlanta Thrashers for the Southeast Division title — clinching the crown with nearly a month to go in the regular season — and the team also claimed its first Presidents’ Trophy in franchise history with an eight-point gap over second-place San Jose Sharks.
Both Ovechkin and Backstrom finished with 100 points for the season, and Ovechkin won the Ted Lindsay Award as the MVP voted by the players by scoring 50 goals in 72 games. Alexander Semin had a strong performance with the only 40-goal NHL season of his career, and Mike Green had 76 points to earn his place as one of the game’s top defensemen.
Once in the postseason, Washington also seemed in cruise control, racing to a 3-1 lead over eighth-seeded Montreal with a pair of convincing wins in Quebec. The Capitals were heading home with a chance to close out a team they finished 33 points clear of in the regular season.
But in Game 5, the Canadiens, who had struggled in goal, got a spark from Jaroslav Halak to rescue Montreal. Halak was tremendous in the last three games of the series, allowing just three goals on 134 shots in the final three games, and perhaps the best Capitals team ever assembled saw its season end in Game 7 disappointment.
4. 1985-86: A Hall of Fame Studded Team Sets Marks
The only other Capitals team perhaps as talented was the 1985-86 roster — certainly up there with the 2010 squad — boasted four future Hall of Famers that were at or near the peak of their careers. Langway, Stevens, Mike Gartner and Larry Murphy were part of that team on their way to enshrinement in Toronto, with all being strong contributors to those mid-1980s Washington teams.
Washington recorded 50 wins for the first time in their history in 1985-86, and also reached 107 points, which was the franchise mark until the 2008-09 season — without the benefit of overtime loss points or shootouts. Dave Christian led the team in goals with 41 — his career high — and Craig Laughlin recorded his first 30-goal season.
The team also was a model of consistency, only dropping three in a row twice that year in the regular season — with one coming in the first three games of the season. As the team entered April, they seemed poised for a long playoff run.
Washington opened the playoffs strong, sweeping the Islanders in three games — still the only sweep in the Capitals’ playoff history — and ousting a team that had beaten them on their first three trips to the playoffs, including rallying from an 0-2 series deficit the year before.
The Capitals also got a break in the second round when the Flyers were upset in five games by the Rangers. Washington was able to jump out to a 2-1 series lead and held a lead in Game 4 at Madison Square Garden, but New York took over the series and was able to upset Washington in six games, putting a disappointing end to a strong roster’s playoff push.
3. 1989-90: The Druce is Loose
Washington’s 1989-90 campaign didn’t seem like it would be a memorable one after a forgettable regular-season when the team had to fight to just qualify for the postseason. It was the Capitals’ worst performance in the standings since 1981-82, but surprisingly led to a season where they were able to bury some playoff demons.
The Caps finished below .500 for the season (36-38-6), and fired longtime coach Bryan Murray in January after an 18-24-4 start, replacing him with his brother Terry. Still, the team finished with just 78 points, finishing third in the Patrick Division and qualifying for the playoffs by a couple of points. But, once the postseason started, the unlikely tale of John Druce started for the Capitals, and Washington rolled to its first and only Patrick Division playoff title.
Druce, who recorded just eight NHL regular-season goals in a season split with Baltimore, had 14 playoff goals in 15 games for the Capitals, as they upended the Devils in six games. Druce then scored the overtime winner in Game 5 at Madison Square Garden to advance to the Wales Conference Final for the first time in franchise history.
While Washington was swept in the Wales Conference Final by the Bruins, the run was the deepest for the 1980s core and alleviated a bit of playoff frustration for a team that was also in the same division as some of the 1980’s powerhouses in the Islanders and Flyers.
2. 1997-98: Kolzig, Capitals Earn First Stanley Cup Trip
End-to-end, the 1997-98 Capitals were one of the more consistent clubs in franchise history, as the team was never in much danger of missing the postseason.
All of this came the year after the long consecutive playoff string dating back to 1982-83 was broken, leading to the firing of Poile, and the hiring of George McPhee and Ron Wilson. Peter Bondra fueled the Capitals’ offense that year with 52 goals — no one else had more than 18 — and Olaf Kolzig established himself as a starter with five shutouts and a 2.20 goals against average.
The team also had a new home, moving in November from the Capital Centre in Landover to its new arena in Chinatown, beating the Florida Panthers in overtime to christen its new arena in December.
But once the postseason started, Kolzig and the Capitals were able to raise their game. In the first round, newly acquired Brian Bellows helped them win their first playoff series since 1991 by ousting Boston in overtime. Next round, Kolzig took control of the Ottawa Senators, allowing just six goals in five games, including two shutouts to end the series. He then outdueled the premier goaltender in the game in Dominik Hasek, as Washington beat the Buffalo Sabres on Joe Juneau’s overtime goal in Game 6 for the franchise’s first Stanley Cup Final appearance.
While Washington was swept in the Cup Final by a star-studded Red Wings, the Capitals were able to have its longest run in decades and it helped establish them in their new downtown home.
1. 2017-18: Capitals Finally Cash in With Stanley Cup
While it appeared the Capitals’ window for a Stanley Cup championship slammed shut after a Game 7 loss to the Penguins in 2017, that didn’t turn out to be the case. While they lost some talent in the summer of 2017 and seemed more likely to be rebuilding than lifting hardware in the near future, they were able to finally break through for good in 2017-18.
A slow start to the regular season put the job of Barry Trotz in question — the team was just 5-6-1 in October as the sting of the previous spring lingered — but they rallied to win the Metropolitan Division and finish with 105 points. Despite another strong regular-season campaign, a big question for Washington heading into the playoffs was in net.
Philipp Grubauer, who won the starting job with a strong finish over Holtby, was replaced after two overtime losses to the Columbus Blue Jackets, which put the Capitals on the brink of another playoff collapse. Washington’s season was hanging by a thread in Game 3 as it reached overtime, but the team survived a post and Lars Eller was able to propel the them to a win. After that, they took control and won the next three games to advance.
In the next round, the Penguins — who had knocked the Caps out the previous two seasons — awaited, and threatened to take the series lead after 40 minutes of Game 5 with a 3-2 lead, the series tied at 2 and Game 6 in Pittsburgh. But the Capitals roared to life in the third with a four-goal outburst to push the Penguins to the brink, and grinded out a 2-1 win in overtime of Game 6 thanks to Kuznetsov’s overtime winner to slay their nemesis.
In the Eastern Conference Final for the first time since 1998, Washington roared out to a 2-0 series lead, but the Tampa Bay Lightning reeled off three straight and seemed poised for a trip to the Stanley Cup Final. However, Holtby and the Capitals took control by shutting out the Lightning by stopping 53 shots in the last two games to advance.
Washington was able to fully erase the frustration of generations past in the Stanley Cup Final, as they reeled off four straight wins following a Game 1 loss to claim the team’s first Stanley Cup Championship in five games.
Certainly, with the franchise’s 50th anniversary approaching in a few years, different Capitals teams will get a shot to make this list, but the result is a cross-section of their history, and certainly some teams didn’t quite make the list.
While the 1974-75 expansion team was memorable, it also wasn’t really known for its success, but it’s 8-67-5 start. The 1993-94 team that hired Jim Schoenfeld and is one of two teams to knock off the Penguins in the playoffs just missed the cut, just as the 1999-2000 who used a strong kick to finish the season. The 2016-17 edition that also won the Presidents’ Trophy also just missed, with a trajectory similar to the prior season.
But, since arriving in Washington and establishing themselves as a Stanley Cup contender for a lot of their existence — a far cry from the early years — the Capitals didn’t vanish in the summer of 1982 and changed the profile of hockey in the nation’s capital forever.
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.