Puck Daddy's Summer Series: The Washington Capitals from A to Z

Puck Daddy's Summer Series: The Washington Capitals from A to Z

(Ed. Note: August is known to be a very quiet month in the hockey world. As we wait for September to arrive and training camps to begin, let’s learn a little history about all 30 teams. Behold, our summer A-Z series, in which we ask fans of all 30 teams to drop some knowledge on us! Add your own choices in the comments!)

By: Becca Henschel, associate editor of Japers' Rink

A. Alex Ovechkin

Sure, he could have also been listed under O, or C for Captain, or S for studly, superb and stupendous… but it seems fitting that the guy who has almost single-handedly changed the course of the Washington Capitals should step into the lead-off spot.

From breaking the rink on his first official NHL shift, to scoring 100+ points in his rookie season, to just scoring all of the goals all of the time – and usually doing so in the face of unyielding (and often unfair) criticism - Alex Ovechkin has been worth the cost of admission since making his debut a decade ago.

There’s not much to say about Ovechkin that hasn’t already been said a million times; he’s simply a phenomenal talent who is quickly joining the ranks of some of the game’s all-time great players.

He doesn’t seem to be slowing down, either - so it’s not all that surprising that over the past two or three years, he’s taken hold of just about every record the franchise has to offer. In doing so, he’s merely making official what we’ve known for a long time: that Alex Ovechkin is simply the greatest to ever play for the Caps.

(How do you not love this guy?!)

B. Bondra, Peter

Until Ovechkin came along, there was arguably no Cap as electrifying to watch as Peter Bondra.

Known affectionately as “Bonzai”, Bondra cut an offensive swath through the League during the 1990s and early 2000s, cracking the 30-goal mark in nine of his 14 seasons in DC and finishing his illustrious career with 503 goals – 472 of which were scored in a Caps jersey (a franchise record that stood until Ovechkin predictably surpassed him last season).

The other 31 goals? Well… we don’t like to talk about those too much. Because frankly the fact that Bondra got #500 in a Blackhawks jersey is a bit of a sore subject for all of us.

C. Crosby vs. Ovechkin

At times this battle has seemed to be nothing more than media-crafted narrative – a ready-made “rivalry” grounded in polar opposites. The good Canadian boy vs. the wild Russian. Center vs. winger. Clean-cut and soft-spoken vs. flamboyant and brash.

Getty Images
Getty Images

But there is some truth to it as well, some foundation of reality behind the narrative.

A grudging mutual respect between the two off the ice hasn’t overshadowed the edge that creeps into their head-to-head battles. And there’s no doubt that the two often play their best when they play against each other; look no further than the epic 2009 playoff series between the two teams (the first and only time Ovechkin and Crosby have done battle in the postseason), most notable for a game in which they both picked up a hat trick.

Better supporting casts in the NHL and on the international stage have brought Crosby success that has eluded Ovechkin to this point, and in recent years the emphasis on the two has cooled a bit as they move from phenoms to veteran leaders on their respective teams.

Still, the clash between Ovechkin and Crosby has largely defined the last decade for the two players, reinvigorating a rivalry between the teams (and their fans) that can be traced back to the days of the Patrick Division and beyond.

D. Dale Hunter

Beloved in DC, loathed just about everywhere else, Hunter was the ultimate pest in an era when pests ruled the day – one only needs to look at his 3565 career penalty minutes, the second-most in NHL history, to see just how great he was at his job (although apparently he wasn’t so great at not getting caught).

Most fans’ memories of Hunter are centered around the massively dirty hit he threw on Pierre Turgeon in the ‘93 playoffs, one that resulted in a 21-game suspension - to that point, the longest suspension ever handed down.

For Washington fans, though, he was much more.

Yes, he was known to walk that line - and cross it on more than one occasion - but he also became the heart and soul of the Caps during his 12 seasons in DC, his workmanlike style serving as a model for the blue-collar Caps teams on which he played and eventually captained. And while he would never be an offensive superstar, his series-winning overtime goal in 1988 is still one of the most memorable goals in the team’s history, and he did manage to rack up over 1000 points to go with his 3000+ penalty minutes during his 19-year career, making him the only player in NHL history to accomplish that somewhat dubious feat.

As for his brief time behind the Caps’ bench… it’s better off forgotten. Let us live in the past and not think about Hunter Hockey ever, ever again.

E. Easter Epic

There have been a lot of heartbreaking moments in Washington Capitals history. A lot. We’re talking buckets and buckets of tears shed over this damn team. But few events have taken up permanent residence in the collective psyche of the Caps fan like the game that became known as the Easter Epic.

It was April 18, 1987, and the Caps and Islanders were facing off in the Patrick Division semifinal - the fifth-straight postseason in which the two teams met. The Caps, who at one point had been up 3-1 in the series, now played host to the Islanders for a pivotal Game 7 to decide who would move on to face the Philadelphia Flyers.

A late game-tying goal by the Islanders’ Bryan Trottier (aided by goalie Bob Mason’s broken skate, which is the special kind of luck reserved for the Washington Capitals) sent the game to overtime… and then it just kept on going, into the early hours of Sunday morning: Easter Sunday. By the time Pat LaFontaine’s slapshot beat Mason to win the game, it was 1:58 a.m. The two teams had played 128:47 of hockey. 132 shots had been fired.

And the Caps’ season was over.

F. First run to the Final

If there was ever a poster team for the saying “just make the playoffs and see what happens”, it was the 1997-98 Washington Capitals. Because thanks to a series of strange happenings and fortuitous events, that was the first Caps team - and to date, the only Caps team - to make it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final.

Their starting goaltender, Bill Ranford, was injured in the season’s opening game, paving the way for then-backup Olie Kolzig to take over and put together a playoff run for the ages. They got into the playoffs as the #4 seed, only to see the three teams ahead of them get knocked out in the first round. And they took on one of the best goaltenders ever to play the game in Dominik Hasek, only to have him be in the net for the biggest overtime goal ever scored in the history of the Caps.

Sadly the magic ran out by the time the Stanley Cup Final got underway (epitomized by the biggest goal ever not scored in the history of the Caps) and the uber-talented Red Wings rolled to a 4-0 victory. C’est la vie… c’est les Caps.

G. Gabby

Few coaches have been as influential and important in Caps’ history as former coach Bruce Boudreau. A career minor-league player, Boudreau joined the organization in 2006 as coach of the Caps’ AHL affiliate Hershey Bears, and led them to back-to-back Calder Cup Final appearances in 2006 and 2007 (winning it in 2006) before getting the call to replace Glen Hanlon in DC on Thanksgiving Day, 2007. The team he inherited was 6-14-1, in last place in the East and seemingly poised to miss the playoffs for the fifth time in six years; under his watch, the Caps went on a 37-17-7 tear, which included winning 11 of their final 12 games to clinch the Southeast Division title and a trip to the postseason (as well as a Jack Adams trophy for himself).

But it wasn’t just what he did that first season that makes him so important. Boudreau completely changed the way the Caps played; he made them fun and exciting to watch again, untapping the previously-hidden offensive potential of guys like Mike Green and letting Alex Ovechkin be Alex Ovechkin. He was responsible for turning the team into a high-flying, high-risk, high-reward group that, at its peak, was the most offensively dominant team in the League.

(Boudreau's motivational speech - NSFW!!!)

It’s not surprising that the shift to a defense-first mentality (a.k.a. the PHSD - post-Halak system demolition) marked the beginning of the end for Boudreau in DC. Just as he was no longer letting the players play to their strengths, he was no longer coaching to his, and it was time for him to move on.

Boudreau wasn’t a perfect coach, but he was the perfect coach for that team at that time, and remains one of the franchise’s winningest - and most beloved - coaches.

H. Holtby, Braden

After Olie Kolzig’s departure at the end of the 2007-08 season, the Caps experienced something they hadn’t experienced for the last decade: suddenly they didn’t have The Guy, that franchise goaltender holding down the fort. They spent the next few years looking for him, alternating between homegrown netminders like Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth and battle-tested veterans like Tomas Vokoun, Jose Theodore and even Jaroslav Halak.

After many years and many wrong turns, however, it appears as though they’ve found him in Braden Holtby.

(Holby is unflappable! He cannot be flapped!)

It wasn’t always a sure thing that he’d be that guy. Holtby was still an AHL prospect in the spring of 2012 when injuries to both of the team’s goalies forced him to step in for the postseason run, and he surprised everyone by being nothing short of spectacular, helping to carry the Caps through two rounds before ultimately being outdueled by Henrik Lundqvist in Game 7. And while there have been some bumps along the way (thanks, Adam Oates), Holtby is now firmly entrenched as the Caps’ #1 netminder - and is putting himself into the conversation as one of the League’s best goalies.

I. It was 3-1

Teams that go up 3-1 in a playoff series have a really good chance of winning that series, and it’s not hard to see why - it’s basic math. Getting to four wins is easier when you’re already at three.

That is, unless you’re the Washington Capitals.

Only 28 times in NHL history has a team erased a 3-1 deficit. That’s 28 times in 277 tries. 28 times… and five of them were against the Caps, including one just a few months ago.

It’s the sole reason why no Caps fan ever feels secure in a series victory until the clock runs out on the deciding game and the Caps actually have more goals than the other team… and even then we’re waiting for someone to tell us it’s okay to open our eyes.

J. Jaromir Jagr

He was loathed by Caps fans until he wasn’t, and then he was beloved until he was hated again. In the whole of the Caps’ history, few players have ever been so controversial - and had such a huge impact, both for good and for evil - as Jaromir Jagr.

For years, Jagr was half of Pittsburgh’s gruesome twosome that made a habit of scoring a ton of goals against the Caps. When he was traded to DC in the summer of 2001, though, fans welcomed him with open arms, even rushing to the airport to greet him when he arrived - and for awhile, it seemed like a good fit, to the point that the team inked him to an insane seven-year, $77-million contract extension later that same year.

But he was never quite the same player with the Caps as he was with the Penguins, a fact which made that $77-million contract seem even more horrible. Turns out it made it harder to unload, too, because the only way the Caps were able to pawn him off on the Rangers was to pay a significant chunk of that horrible contract for the next few years.

If there was a silver lining to Jagr’s time in DC, it was that his presence, and eventual departure, led to the fire sale and rebuild of the team… which led to the Caps being able to draft Alex Ovechkin.

So thanks, Jaromir. Thanks for everything.

K. Kolzig, Olie

Although drafted in the first round in 1989, it was five years before Kolzig began to play any sort of regular role in the NHL; it took another few years for him to the chance to be the starting goaltender.

But when Bill Ranford’s season ended on opening night 1997, Kolzig stepped in and took over - and never looked back. He went on to play more than 700 games for the Caps (and another 45 in the playoffs, including his phenomenal run en route to the team’s lone Stanley Cup Final appearance in 1998), and is one of just 31 goalies in NHL history to have cracked the 300-win mark.

For the better part of a decade, he was the backbone, the heart, and the face of the franchise, up until the somewhat contentious end of their relationship at the end of the 2008 season - but time heals all wounds, and Kolzig has since returned to the team to help mold the next generation of Caps’ netminders.

L. Leonsis, Ted

Washington Post
Washington Post

The late Abe Pollin was the mastermind behind bringing the Caps to DC back in the early 1970s, but the hockey team was always seen as something of a red-headed stepchild for Pollin compared to his beloved Wizards (nee Bullets). That changed when AOL executive Ted Leonsis put together a group to purchase the Capitals from Pollin in 1999. Said Leonsis at the time, “This franchise needed a jolt of energy and focus. I couldn't tell you a good defenseman or not, but I can tell you how to present and package up a brand and make sure that the players connect with the audience.”

Over the years, Leonsis has become one of the more hands-on owners in professional sports - sometimes to a fault, as was the case when he led the charge to bring Jaromir Jagr to DC or attempted to bar Pittsburgh fans from purchasing tickets to playoff games.

But he’s also been a vocal proponent of technology, innovation, and fan access, which included making the Caps the first team to issue press credentials to bloggers - a major reason why so many of us crazy Caps bloggers are around, and a huge step forward for the online hockey community in general.

M. Music Videos

If you were alive during the late 1980s and early 1990s, you may remember the strange trend of professional sports teams creating horrible music videos. The Chicago Bears did it the worst… but the Caps did it the most.

Using the year-end highlight videos as the backdrop, the Caps put out a series of videos featuring the team lip-syncing to bad songs while pretending to play various instruments and/or stumbling through synchronized “choreography”.  Add in the simple fact that there was nothing good about fashion or hairstyles in that era, and you’ve got the makings of some instant comedy.

Because even if one song pretty much sounds like the next, there’s something magical and unique about each one - whether it’s the aggressive group pointing of “Out on Top”...

Or the entire team somehow not knowing the lyrics to “Red, White & Blue"...

Or the dancing brass section in “Capital Feeling”...

Or the seriously soulful singing in “Double Trouble”...

Of course, it didn’t stop in the ‘80s; the tradition lives on, whether it was the Ovechkin and friends rocking the red (and the guyliner) for the 2008-09 opening video:

Or some ugly sweaters taking center stage in the best damn version of Jingle Bells you’ll ever see:

N. Nicklas Backstrom

If Alex Ovechkin has cemented himself as the greatest goal-scorer in Caps’ history, Backstrom is quickly making a case for being the franchise’s greatest playmaker. His vision, his hands and his ability to run a power play like a conductor leading a symphony orchestra make him insanely fun to watch - if you take the time to actually do so.

Because most of what he does is so effortless and under the radar, especially next to the flashiness of Ovechkin, that sometimes it’s easy to forget just how good he is. As underrated players go, he’s near the top of the list - never an All-Star, never a Selke finalist, and rarely in the conversation as an elite player despite putting up elite numbers year after year.

And yet while his fans, and his teammates, and his coaches, bristle at him being overlooked time and time again, Backstrom seems content to quietly go about his business, eternally in the immense shadow of his Russian linemate - and perfectly happy to stay there.

O. "O"

A lot of hockey arenas have their little anthem traditions. Dallas fans yell “Stars!” during the Star-Spangled Banner; Winnipeg fans yell “True North!” in the middle of “O, Canada”. And Chicago fans... they just yell. In DC, the tradition isn’t quite as clearly defined - and at times it can be a bit controversial.

Back in the early days of the franchise, the team played in the wilds of Prince George’s County (or PG County, to you native DMV speakers out there) - just a quick trip from nearby Baltimore, helping to establish a decent-sized Capitals fanbase in Charm City. Those fans proceeded to bring their tradition of  yelling “O” (for the Orioles) from Camden Yards over to Capital Centre.

The problem, of course, is that the team now makes its home in downtown DC, and the “O” rubs some locals the wrong way… because this ain’t Baltimore, hon. As an answer to that Camden Yards chant, many Caps fans have taken to yelling “Red” instead.

To this day fans remain divided on whether to yell “O”, or “Red”, or both (or neither) - but we all agree that being able to hear both, in enemy territory on New Year’s Day 2011, was pretty freaking sweet.

P. Playoff misery

Look… there’s a reason that Caps fans are such a pessimistic bunch, and it all comes down to the playoffs. Because we’ve simply seen too much. Too many blown leads, too many weird bounces, too many losses to the damn Penguins. The Caps haven’t just broken our hearts over the years; they’ve crushed them into a fine, red-hued powder. And then set that powder on fire. And then poured acid on it.

They were less than two minutes away from dispatching the New York Rangers in five games and ended up losing the game - and two games later, the series - in overtime.

They’ve played two of the longest overtime games in NHL playoff history, and lost both of them. At home.

One of the best, if not the best, Caps teams ever assembled had a 3-1 lead in a series against the 8th-seeded Montreal Canadiens, and they ended up falling in seven games, on home ice, by one goal.

It’s not always solely on the team, either. Come playoff time, the hockey gods seem to take great joy in kicking us about the ear, nose and throat - whether it’s a disallowed goal that should have counted, or a puck that slides juuuuust wide of the net, or an opponent’s shot that ricochets in off of a Caps’ stick. You name it, we’ve seen it.

This is the kind of stuff we put up with year after year... after year. It’s our little annual tradition. And yet we always come back for more, year after year after year. Why? Because we love it.

No, really.

Q. Qualifying for the playoffs for the first time

That misery had to start somewhere, and for the Caps, that was in 1983 - the first year the team ever made the postseason. It took a new general manager in David Poile and a huge trade with the Montreal Canadiens to get the Caps on the right path, but by the end of the 1982-83 campaign the Caps had finished with a franchise-high 94 points (almost 30 more than they’d earned the previous season) and were set for a first-round meeting with the New York Islanders.

...yes, they lost.

But it would start a run of 14 consecutive playoff appearances for the Caps, and marked a huge leap forward for a team that had, up until that point, taken only the tiniest of steps.

R. Rod Langway

The trade that spurred the Caps to that first playoff appearance involved six players, but it centered around one in particular: Rod Langway. Over the next 11 seasons in DC, the aptly-nicknamed “Secretary of Defense” served as the team’s captain, and was the foundation on which those dominant Caps’ defensive corps of the 1980s and early 1990s were built.

He went on to win two Norris Trophies, have his number lifted to the rafters of Verizon Center, and become the first player inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as a Washington Capital.

S. Scott Stevens

It’s something of a toss-up as to whether Stevens is more important to the history of the franchise for what he did in a Caps jersey, or what happened after he left.

Because before he became the captain of all of those Cup-winning New Jersey teams, he was drafted by, and played eight seasons for, the Caps. During those eight seasons he was part of a dominant blueline that included Langway, Larry Murphy, Kevin Hatcher and Calle Johansson, and established new franchise records in a number of categories (although all have since been broken).

But when the St. Louis Blues signed Stevens to an offer sheet in 1990, the Caps chose not to match - a decision which changed the course of the franchise. Washington received five picks from the Blues as compensation, and the aftershocks of those picks can still be seen today, helping to build the next three decades of Caps teams.

Of course, the three Cups Stevens eventually won with the Devils would have been nice, too...

T. The Goal

No explanation needed. Just watch.

U. Unleash the Fury

A mish-mash of adrenalin-inducing movie clips ranging from Network to Animal House (and featuring a cameo by a jersey-clad Tom Green), Unleash the Fury has become a rallying cry for the Verizon Center faithful… and a loud one at that.

It’s release coincided with the team’s mad dash for the playoffs in 2008, and struck a chord with a fanbase that was already all riled up from watching the new brand of hockey brought to town by Bruce Boudreau. But it lives on to this day, continuing to get fans out of their seats at home games - and making a particularly notable appearance at this year’s Winter Classic.

V. Verizon Center

Perched on the corner of 7th and F Street NW in downtown DC, Verizon Center has been the home of the Caps since December 2, 1997. The move marked the first time the Washington Capitals would actually play in Washington, having spent the last two decades at the Capital Centre in Landover, MD.

W. Worst. Team. Ever.

Step back, 2014-15 Buffalo Sabres.

Take a seat, 1992-93 Ottawa Senators.

You tried to dethrone the champs, but the 1974-75 Washington Capitals were, are, and will likely forever be known as the most laughably horrendous squad ever assembled. 8 wins. 67 losses. A -265 goal differential. 52 games in which their opponent scored at least five goals against them. The worst plus-minus rating in NHL history, Bill Mikkelson’s hearty minus-82. The list goes on and on.

The team was so bad that they’ve since taken on an almost mythical - even lovable - quality. For better or worse (and it was almost always worse), that team was the start of everything for Caps fans. That’s where it all began; those who lived through it are stronger for having done so, and those who didn’t can use the stories of that first year to provide a little perspective when things seem bleak. It could always be worse, and once upon a time it was worse.

Because for an eternally underachieving franchise, being the best at something is nice, even if it’s just being the best at being the worst… and when you don’t have a Stanley Cup, sometimes a trash can will have to do.

X. Xenophobia

Imagine the last 10 years of Caps coverage if Alex Ovechkin was born in Moose Jaw instead of Moscow.

Y. Young Guns

After a series of disappointing, depressing seasons (which culminated in the biggest fire sale in franchise history), the Caps returned to the ice in 2005 with the cupboard full of young talent. The core group of those talented players - Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and Mike Green - became affectionately known as the “Young Guns”, and for a number of years they personified the youth and skill of that era’s Washington Capitals teams.

Of course, today only Backstrom and Ovechkin remain, and neither of them could be considered particularly young anymore (at least by NHL standards). But that group, and the teams they represented, leave behind plenty of good memories - and more than a few highlight-reel plays.

Z. Zebras, bad

Every fan thinks the referees are out to get their team. Most of the time, they’re probably not. When it comes to the Caps, though… we’re not so sure.

Okay, so there’s probably not some widely-orchestrated and perfectly-executed plot out there designed to take down the Caps (and god knows this team doesn’t usually need assistance to stumble). But their recent history is littered with WTF moments from the black-and-white jerseys, from the washed-out Ovechkin goal in Game 7 against the Canadiens ...

... to Joel Ward’s no-goal in Game 5 this past spring (which should have been a goal) ...

... Bill McCreary flat out tackling Shaone Morrisonn:

Want more examples? Ask a Caps fan. They’ll give you plenty… just pretend you don’t see them twitching.

Meet the author: Becca Henschel is an associate editor on Japers’ Rink. She was born a Caps fan, will likely die a Caps fan, and just hopes that somewhere in between those two events, there’s a Stanley Cup parade in Washington. You can follow her on Twitter @BeccaH_JR.

Previous A to Z Guides: Anaheim | Arizona | Boston | Buffalo | Calgary | Carolina | Chicago | Colorado | Columbus | Dallas | Detroit | Edmonton | Florida | Los Angeles | Minnesota | Montreal | Nashville | New Jersey | NY Islanders | NY Rangers | Ottawa | Philadelphia | Pittsburgh | San Jose | Toronto | Vancouver