The Capitals are, by now, a fixture in the NHL playoffs, winners of the Southeast Division in five of the past six years, occasionally even among a handful of favorites to reach the finals or — gulp — win the Stanley Cup. But for all the franchise’s changing fortunes and growing following, only one Capitals teams has advanced to the finals: that group back in 1998, when Oates dished out pucks and Johansson held the blue line and Kolzig manned the crease.
On Thursday, when the Capitals open the playoffs against the New York Rangers, Oates will be behind the bench, the head coach. Johansson will be at his side, a trusted assistant. And Kolzig will watch from above at Verizon Center, an associate goalie coach to the man who once coached him, Dave Prior.
For Oates, a Hall of Famer who played for seven franchises, this is a chance to direct a team for the first time, and that is meaningful in itself. But Oates played in Detroit. He played in Boston. The tradition there is undeniably deeper, the scrutiny inarguably more intense.
No one, though, played more games for the Capitals than Johansson’s 983, and no one stepped into net for the Capitals more often than Kolzig, who did so 771 times. To them, this chance means more, because it is in Washington.
“My heart is here, for this organization,” Johansson said. “My heart is here.”
“Ultimately,” Kolzig said, “this is home.”
‘The biggest trade ever’
In February 1997, the Capitals were flailing along, en route to irrelevance. At the end of that season, David Poile, the general manager for 15 years, was fired. But before that happened, he pulled the trigger on what, “for the Capitals, might be the biggest trade ever,” according to Kolzig. Jim Carrey, once the winner of the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender, went to Boston along with Anson Carter, Jason Allison and a draft choice. To the Capitals came Oates, rugged winger Rick Tocchet and goalie Bill Ranford.
“I was just so happy for the team,” Johansson said.
Oates was, admittedly, an occasional malcontent during his playing days. When he arrived, the Capitals still played in the dank void that was the old Capital Centre. The team, it seemed, had no real expectation, and certainly no culture, of winning.