(Via the archives)
(Via the archives)

This story is well-known to longtime Caps fans, and maybe even to medium-time Caps fans. But I’d guess at least some newer Caps fans might not remember that time in late January 1992 when Washington’s hockey franchise served as the final U.S. opponent for the U.S. hockey team before it left for the Albertville Olympics.

“It is the best ice hockey team the United States can scrape together, and its record is 16-30-8,” The Post’s Christine Brennan wrote in her game preview. “Journeymen NHL players dot its roster. College stars from Boston form its heart. But who knows what makes up its soul?”

As Brennan explained, the U.S. team had — in previous Olympic cycles — played exhibitions against college and minor league teams, including before the 1980 Miracle on Ice. After Olympic failures in 1984 and 1988, the team started scheduling NHL and top-level foreign opponents.

Entering that final tune-up against the Caps, the 1992 Olympians had a record of 3-13-3 against NHL teams, “with the three victories coming over the hapless San Jose Sharks (two times) and the Minnesota North Stars,” Brennan wrote.

Unfortunately for the Olympic hockey teams of the United States, Canada and the former Soviet Union, the Games occur in the winter — during the NHL season. Since the 1988 Olympics, professionals have been allowed to compete in ice hockey, but few if any big names do, because it would be unthinkable for an NHL team to allow a superstar to leave his team and risk injury in the Olympics.

It’s entirely different in basketball, played during the Summer Games and in the NBA offseason. Thus, the U.S. basketball team nabs Michael Jordan; the U.S. hockey team gets Moe Mantha.

“When you go after Moe Mantha, it tells me they are in a little bit of trouble,” said Washington Capitals General Manager David Poile.

So what happened against the Caps? Well, 10,526 fans trekked out to Landover’s finest arena, many of them chanting “U-S-A, U-S-A.” The Caps went up 2-0. But the home team did not dress goalies Don Beaupre and Mike Liut, defensemen Kevin Hatcher and Rod Langway or forwards Dale Hunter, Dino Ciccarelli, Mike Ridley, Randy Burridge and Kelly Miller. They also called up a quintet of prospects from Baltimore, including forwards Jeff Greenlaw, Reggie Savage and John Purves, and goalies Jim Hrivnak and Olie Kolzig, the latter making his Cap Centre debut.

“Both teams gained,” Capitals Coach Terry Murray said after the game. “We saw some young guys play in some situations and they get a better read on their club.”

“Ollie played extremely well,” Murray also said, via the Baltimore Sun. “It’s tough enough to come into a game cold, but he had to contend with several very tough shots. He made some big saves, especially on shots around the crease and breakaways. I’ve seen a lot of improvement in Ollie in just one year.”

More from the AP’s Dave Ginsburg:

The [U.S.] team went 17-31-8, including 4-14-3 against NHL opponents. There is only one more cut still to be made – forwards David A. Jensen and Bill Guerin were let go Thursday before the team left for Europe – so the squad that boarded the plane for France is essentially the one that will try to capture America’s first hockey gold medal since the Miracle of 1980.

Someone in search of an optimistic note can point to the team’s 5-3 victory over the Washington Capitals on Wednesday night. Four months earlier, the Capitals beat the United States 6-2.

“They’re more of a team now,” Washington coach Terry Murray said. “They’re coming together at the right time. Their speed, chemistry, patience, poise and execution is better today than it was in September.”

In that last meeting, Steve Heinze had two goals for the U.S.; Guy Gosselin, Jim Johannson and Ted Donato all scored, and Ray LeBlanc got the win in net. Nick Kypreos, Ken Sabourin and Mike Lalor scored for the Caps. From Dave Sell’s WaPo story:

There were no miracles. There were no searches for spectator fathers by flag-draped sons. But the U.S. Olympic hockey team will leave for France this morning with a smile on its collective face after beating the Washington Capitals 5-3 last night at Capital Centre. …

“We won. That was nice for a change,” Team USA Coach Dave Peterson said. “Obviously they were missing some people. But it is a good jumping off [point] for us. A good way to get on the plane.”

And what happened in Albertville? Well, the U.S. cruised through the group stage with a 4-0-1 mark, and then handled France 4-1 in a quarterfinal. The “Miracle” talk began. But here was no medal and instead more soul-searching after a 5-2 loss to the Unified team and a 6-1 loss to the Czechs.

“Before we get into this absurd Swedish conspiracy thing, let’s establish this,” Wilbon wrote in The Post after that first loss. “When it comes to Olympic hockey, the United States and the Russians aren’t even playing the same game.”

(Via Scott. Thanks Scott.)