Evgeny Kuznetsov’s shot through Matt Murray’s wickets 5:27 into overtime Monday night in Pittsburgh was the Capitals’ 31st overtime playoff goal in franchise history and the seventh that ended a series. For more than a few longtime Capitals followers, Kuznetsov’s game-winner evoked memories of Washington’s first such series-clinching, sudden-death goal, scored by Dale Hunter in Game 7 of the 1988 Patrick Division semifinals against the Flyers.
The similarities between the two goals, scored 30 years apart, are uncanny. Both came in the sixth minute of the first overtime. Both were set up by a turnover at the defensive blue line by a team from Pennsylvania. Both included a primary assist from a No. 8 (Larry Murphy in 1990 and Alex Ovechkin on Monday). Both involved the goal-scorer splitting two defenders on a breakaway and beating the goalie through the five-hole from the same side of the net. Both were followed by a bird walk celebration. (Okay, that last one isn’t true.)
Kuznetsov’s carbon copy of Hunter’s goal, which ended the Capitals’ 20-year drought between conference finals appearances, prompted some discussion on Twitter about the biggest goals in Capitals history. Capitals Radio host Ben Raby suggested Hunter’s game-winner still tops the list, while NBC Sports Washington analyst Alan May said Kuznetsov’s now belongs at the top.
There’s no wrong answer here, and you can make a strong case that either of those goals was the biggest in Capitals history, but Joe Juneau’s overtime winner to send the Capitals to the Stanley Cup finals in 1998 is still No. 1 in my heart and in my mind. Here’s my ranking of the seven series-clinching OT goals in Capitals history:
1. Joe Juneau (June 4, 1998)
A little more than six minutes into overtime of Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, Juneau buried a rebound off a shot by Brian Bellows past Dominik Hasek to send the Capitals, including the veteran Hunter, to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in franchise history.
“I guess everybody wants to be the hero in a game like this,” Juneau said afterward. “I looked at them just before we went into the overtime and told assistant coach Tim Army he was looking at Neil Armstrong. It’s good to put a little pressure on yourself and try to do it. This is the goal that brings you into the finals. It is the biggest deal.”
2. Dale Hunter (April 16, 1988)
Hunter took a pass from Larry Murphy and skated in alone to beat Ron Hextall, lifting the Capitals to a 5-4 win over the Flyers in Game 7 of the Patrick Division semifinals at Capital Centre.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do when I crossed the blue line, but I kind of moved the puck a little bit and he left a little room between his legs,” Hunter said. “I was glad to see it go through. There wasn’t much room. I’m not a goal scorer. I was just in the right place at the right time.”
Hunter’s tally, which is still known simply as “The Goal” to many Capitals fans, capped Washington’s comeback from down 3-1 in the series and down 3-0 in the game.
3. Evgeny Kuznetsov (Monday)
As Raby suggests, Kuznetsov’s place on this list could depend on how Washington fares in the next round, but there’s no question that Monday’s game-winner was the biggest Capitals goal since the franchise’s 1998 Stanley Cup finals run. For younger Caps fan, this is probably a shoo-in for No. 1 or No. 2.
“Please score,” Alex Ovechkin said he was thinking to himself after springing Kuznetsov on the breakaway.
4. John Druce (April 27, 1990)
Druce clinched Washington’s first trip to the conference finals by deflecting Geoff Courtnall’s pass past Rangers goalie John Vanbiesbrouck less than seven minutes into overtime in Game 5 of their second-round series.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” Druce said. “Right now, my stomach is turning with butterflies. It was such an important thing for everybody on this team. We were tabbed as a losing team in the third period of games earlier. But we’ve pulled together and gelled at the right time. It’s such a great feeling to see everyone with a winning attitude.”
5. Joel Ward (April 25, 2012)
Two minutes 57 seconds into overtime of Game 7 in Boston, Joel Ward collected a rebound off a shot by Mike Knuble and put it into the back of the net.
“Words can’t really describe it,” Ward said, after his goal advanced the Capitals to the second round. “It was a sense of relief, excitement. It was just unbelievable. The puck was just sitting there. I just took a whack. When it was over, it really hit me when the guys were coming off the bench.”
“It’s awesome,” Hunter, in his only season as Washington’s coach, said. “By being an ex-player I know what it takes, what the players are going through over there; they get to blocking shots and taking big hits, they’re sacrificing. So for players, I think it’s one of those things when you win big games like this it’s because they sacrificed, and they did tonight and through the whole series.”
Some Bruins fans responded to Ward’s goal by firing off racist tweets, which Capitals owner Ted Leonsis called “unforgivable.”
6. Marcus Johansson (April 23, 2017)
Marcus Johansson finished off the Toronto Maple Leafs in last year’s first round with a goal 6:31 into overtime of Game 6.
“It’s never going to be an easy ride, and you know, I think it’s good for us where we kind of got a start where everything didn’t just go smoothly,” Johansson said. “You kind of get right into it, and you have to work hard and battle for it. And that’s what we had to do.”
7. Brian Bellows (May 3, 1998)
The Capitals’ first step en route to their Stanley Cup finals appearance in 1998 was a first-round win over the Bruins, which Brian Bellows ended with a goal 15:24 into overtime of Game 6. Bellows and Adam Oates assisted on Juneau’s game-winner in double overtime of Game 3, which came two days after Boston evened the series at MCI Center with a double-overtime win in Game 2.
“It feels great,” Coach Ron Wilson said after Washington’s series-clinching win. “I’m really happy for our guys because we’ve been carrying all these demons around, especially the older guys. A lot of players sort of feel like our demons have been exorcised, and then you don’t want to get too far ahead of yourselves, but you have the possibility of home ice in the next two rounds.”
Honorable Mention: It wasn’t in overtime, but Sergei Fedorov’s goal to beat the Rangers with five minutes left in Game 7 of 2009’s first-round series deserves a mention here. Fedorov would crack the above list, were it not limited to overtime goals, at No. 5.
“Not much else going, so I decided to shoot,” Fedorov said after helping Washington complete a comeback from three-games-to-one down. ” I knew the defense was giving me short side, so I shot it top shelf.”
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