“It’s done. We did it. We did it despite injuries to key players. We did it on the road,” the coach said after the Capitals, perennial victims of playoff heartbreak, clinched a spot in the conference finals with a 2-1 overtime win. “To do it this way makes it feel even better. One of the first things I said to the team after the game was, ‘You guys will never forget each other.’ ”
That was Terry Murray after Washington defeated the New York Rangers on John Druce’s goal in Game 5 of their second-round series on April 27, 1990, and secured their first trip to the NHL’s semifinal round in franchise history. It could have been Barry Trotz after Washington defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins by the same score Monday on Evgeny Kuznetsov’s overtime winner in Game 6 to end a 20-year drought between trips to the conference finals.
(“All day, I knew we were going to win,” Trotz, the Capitals’ current coach, actually said late Monday night after he led a team beyond the second round for the first time in his career. “This group has a lot of resiliency.”)
“I turned to my wife and gave her a big hug,” Capitals owner Abe Pollin said in 1990. “I just started yelling: After 16 years, it finally happened. It’s been a long, long time coming.”
“It’s almost embarrassing it’s taken this long for us to get past it,” Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said in the visitors locker room at PPG Paints Arena, some 28 years later.
Former Washington Post columnist Michael Wilbon put the Capitals’ first trip to the conference finals in perspective after Druce’s Game 5 heroics.
“To win the Stanley Cup, they have to beat the favored Boston Bruins, then Edmonton or Chicago or St. Louis in another series,” Wilbon wrote. “That’s how far the Capitals are from winning the whole thing. But for right now, it simply doesn’t matter. This whole franchise has been judged on its inability to get out of the division in the playoffs.”
Rangers forward Mike Gartner, who spent 10 years with the Capitals, understood what the win meant to Washington and its fans better than most.
“The Caps have had some great teams, but for one reason or another they haven’t been able to do it,” Gartner said after the Rangers were eliminated. “I’m sure they feel real good about it now, after going through so many disappointments. I said before the playoffs started that this might be the year the Caps would do something, because not much was expected of them. I think that took some of the pressure off.”
The Bruins swept the Capitals in four games in the next round, but Washington wouldn’t have to wait quite as long to get back to the conference finals a second time.
“The ovation last night was boisterous and loud and exactly what the Washington Capitals had wanted for so long and toiled for so desperately, not just this season but for the last eight seasons, really,” The Post’s Rachel Alexander, who is now Rachel Nichols, wrote on May 15, 1998, after Washington closed out the Ottawa Senators in Game 5 of their second-round series in D.C. “The sellout crowd at MCI Center was screaming and waving white pompoms, signs and anything else fans could get their hands on, and the commotion may have been even wilder on the Capitals’ bench, where so many players were rubbing defenseman Sergei Gonchar’s head that his helmet almost came off.”
Gonchar’s power-play goal with less than two minutes remaining effectively iced the game. Calle Johansson added an empty-netter with 18 seconds to play to complete the scoring in the Capitals’ 3-0 win.
“When the buzzer sounded, the Capitals poured off the bench to mob goaltender Olaf Kolzig, whose 29 saves gave him his second consecutive shutout and third of the postseason,” Alexander wrote. “But the hugs were not limited to the ice. A team that remained out of the limelight in recent years, playing to half-empty buildings, seized its city’s attention.”
“I’m very excited about getting to the next round,” Capitals Coach Ron Wilson said. “I’m really happy for our players because of all the adversity we faced this year. We’re looking to gain respect, and we’ve been given an opportunity. We’re the only game in town, and it’s given us an opportunity to win over some new fans, and we’re really excited about it. But we have to remember. On the way to the Stanley Cup, we’re only halfway there.”
The Senators, who upset the top-seeded New Jersey Devils in the first round, scored seven goals in five games against the Capitals and were shut out in the last two games.
“We feel we should have beaten this team, but we just didn’t come up with the goals to do it,” Ottawa winger Daniel Alfredsson said. “It wasn’t from a lack of effort; we ran into a good goalie at his peak. I see them going pretty far.”
The Capitals would go all the way to the Stanley Cup finals, where they were swept by the Detroit Red Wings. Kolzig made the entire playoff run possible.
“Olie’s the man right now,” Wilson said after the Capitals closed out the Senators. “I think everybody agrees.”
“That’s what playoffs are all about,” said Kolzig, who tweeted about the Capitals’ win on Monday. “I don’t want to take full credit because I’m just one guy — one part of the team. Had Peter Bondra or Adam Oates scored a hat trick it would be the same thing: He’s part of a team.”
Washington’s triumph over the Senators made a winner of President Clinton, who made a friendly wager on the series with Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien. The loser had to wear the winning team’s sweater during a photo opportunity; Chretien honored the bet at the G8 Economic Summit. D.C. Mayor Marion Barry and Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson also bet on the game. Barry put crab cakes on the line. After the Capitals won, Watson sent a package of maple sausages and beaver tails to D.C.
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