“Once that happened, I kind of just became enthralled with it and took it all in,” said Kolzig, who posed for a photo with Braden Holtby and Alex Ovechkin as they held the Prince of Wales Trophy. “It was absolutely fantastic.”
Twenty years ago, Kolzig experienced this moment firsthand, at Buffalo’s Marine Midland Arena, where Joe Juneau’s overtime goal in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals advanced the Capitals to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in franchise history. No one — not Capitals fans, nor Kolzig, nor his blue-and-gold clad teammates — could’ve imagined on June, 4, 1998, that it would take so long to get back.
The unforgettable season that culminated in the Capitals’ trip to the 1998 Stanley Cup finals began the previous June, shortly after Washington missed the playoffs for the first time in 15 years. Team owner Abe Pollin fired general manager David Poile and coach Jim Schoenfeld, and replaced them with George McPhee and Ron Wilson, respectively. McPhee and Wilson were inspired hires.
“Ron was a great coach,” said Capitals winger Peter Bondra, who tied Teemu Selanne for the league lead in goals with 52 during the 1997-98 season. “He wasn’t my favorite coach to play for, but looking back, my best years were for him. So he pushed the right buttons for me. I knew what I was supposed to do, and he knew how to get the best out of all of us.”
“We just had a different outlook and a different feel that year,” said Kolzig, who established himself as a No. 1 goalie for the first time in his career. “We had a very, very balanced team, a lot like the team that’s playing Vegas next week. We had our superstars, like Adam Oates, Peter Bondra and Joe Juneau, with Phil Housley on the back end. We also had shutdown D, hard-nosed D, and we had those grit players.”
The Capitals started fast, opening the 1997-98 season with seven wins in their first eight games. Washington was 26-17-10 and in comfortable position to return to the postseason on Jan. 31, before an eight-game winless streak that spanned the league’s two-week break for the 1998 Winter Games prompted McPhee to bolster the roster ahead of the trade deadline. In early March, the Capitals acquired five-time Stanley Cup winner Esa Tikannen from the Panthers. Two weeks later, Washington signed 33-year-old forward Brian Bellows, who had been playing in Germany after failing to sign an NHL contract.
“I had a sense that our team was better than a lot of guys thought,” said Bellows, who had been teammates with Wilson in Minnesota a decade earlier. “We had a great defensive corps. We had a really good combination of guys and more high-end players than the Montreal team that I was on that won the Cup [in 1993].”
“It’s the ingredient we needed on this team, a guy who can play in front of the net,” McPhee said after Bellows scored two goals in his Capitals debut. “It’s amazing what just adding that last ingredient can do.”
Bellows scored nine points and helped the Capitals to an 8-2-1 record over their final 11 regular season games, which helped them secure a fourth-place finish in the Eastern Conference standings and home-ice advantage in the first round.
“There was a lull after the Olympics,” Kolzig said, “but we got it all straightened out in time for the playoffs.”
“We looked around the room and it was amazing the experience and talent we had,” Juneau said. “Defensively, any teams would’ve traded having the defensemen that we had, and offensively, it was the same way. By the time we reached the playoffs, we had lines where everybody could score. Nobody wanted to play against us.”
The Capitals’ playoff run got off to an inauspicious start when Bondra had to be helped off the ice after spraining his ankle in Game 1 against the Boston Bruins. Bondra, who initially told Wilson he thought he broke his leg, started Game 2, but didn’t finish, and would sit out the next three games. With their star forward sidelined, the Capitals built a three-games-to-one series lead. Juneau scored in double-overtime of Game 3 after P.J. Axelsson’s apparent game-winner was nullified when the video goal judge determined Tim Taylor’s skate was in the crease as the puck crossed the goal line in the first overtime.
“Nobody in town was really getting too excited, because of what happened in the past,” Kolzig said, referencing the four two-game leads the franchise had blown since 1987. “I think Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon starting writing articles, ‘Here we go again.’ ”
The dark clouds began to gather after Washington dropped a clunker of a Game 5 at MCI Center. The Capitals responded in Game 6 with a 3-2 overtime win in Boston on a knuckling blast from Bellows that beat Bruins goalie Byron Dafoe.
“From that moment on, I think we felt like, ‘Okay, maybe this is our year,'” said Kolzig, who made 47 saves in Game 6.
“I’m really happy for our guys because we’ve been carrying all these demons around, especially the older guys,” Wilson said after the series-clinching win.
Meanwhile, the top three seeds in the Eastern Conference were all upset in the first round. The fourth-seeded Capitals made quick work of eighth-seeded Ottawa in the second round, with Kolzig posting consecutive shutouts in Game 4 and Game 5 to put Washington in the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 1990. The Buffalo Sabres, led by goalie Dominik Hasek, awaited.
“I remember seeing a story [before the series] about how good he was,” Bondra said of Hasek, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner. “As a goal scorer, that kind of got me going. He’s a good goalie, but I have to trust my instincts. If I try to put it the corner, or if I have to score an extremely nice goal, it’s not going to work. I remember thinking, I just have to worry about my game.”
Bondra beat Hasek glove side in overtime of Game 3 to give the Capitals a 2-1 series lead, and after the teams split the next two games, Washington returned to Buffalo with a chance to advance.
When Wilson met with his team the morning of that Game 6, he compared the Capitals clinching a berth in the Stanley Cup finals to Apollo 11 landing on the moon. Juneau, who earned a degree in aeronautical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, immediately volunteered to be Neil Armstrong. Twelve hours later, with the Capitals and Sabres tied 2-2 at the end of regulation, Juneau reiterated the point, telling assistant coach Tim Army that he was looking at the first man to walk on the moon. Six minutes and 24 seconds into overtime, Juneau scored the goal that put the Capitals on orbit for the Stanley Cup finals.
Once again, Bellows’s knack for getting to the net was a major factor in what arguably remains the biggest goal in franchise history.
“I know I didn’t have much room, but back then you could basically crash the goalie if you wanted to, as long as you had the puck,” Bellows said of the play that set up the game-winner. “I just went in and tried to jam it, jam it. I got knocked down by a couple of guys and Joe came in and scored.”
“It wasn’t the nicest goal that I scored, but it was obviously the most important one,” said Juneau, whose 17 points during the playoffs that season tied Oates for the team lead. “It’s the one that’s probably remembered the most.”
The Capitals celebrated with the Prince of Wales Trophy before the stunned crowd in Buffalo and no one was happier than captain Dale Hunter.
“I’ve been pumping for 18 years and I’ve never got a crack at it,” Hunter told reporters after the game.
“Everybody was so happy and so proud,” Juneau said earlier this month. “That was all right. We had accomplished something pretty high. At the same time, we still wanted to get to the next point. It’s not like we stopped.”
The fan support that had been growing throughout the Capitals’ playoff run reached a crescendo when the team returned to its Piney Orchard practice facility in Odenton, Md. after landing at BWI as Eastern Conference champions.
“We were probably a mile-and-a-half from the rink and you could already see the cars lined up on the side of the road,” Kolzig said. “By the time we got to the practice rink, every spot was full. We’d had a few beverages on the plane and after the game, so we weren’t feeling anything at that time, but just that atmosphere coming back, it gave you chills.”
The Capitals opened the Stanley Cup finals on the road against Detroit and lost Game 1, 2-1. Two days later, Washington had a 4-2 lead with seven minutes gone in the third period and appeared poised to return to D.C. with the series tied. After Detroit cut the lead to one, Tikannen would miss an open net after beating goalie Chris Osgood midway through the frame. The Red Wings tied the game in regulation and took a commanding 2-0 series lead on Kris Draper’s overtime goal.
“Many people felt that we deserved to win those games,” Juneau said. “One for sure that we led all the way to the end. For some reason, things turned around. We ended up losing the game. We could’ve come back from Detroit with a 1-1 tie or 2-0 lead, that’s how well we played there. Then we got home and, for some reason, we weren’t the same team anymore.”
“I think we may have run out of gas,” Bellows said. “I think part of it was, and it sounds weird, but until you’ve been there and lost one, you don’t realize how rare an opportunity it is. I think we maybe went into the finals and were pretty happy and we weren’t ready to put our foot on the gas pedal a little bit further when we needed to.”
Washington lost Game 3, 2-1, and Kolzig said the number of Red Wings fans in the lower bowl of MCI Center “was pretty disheartening.” Three days later, Detroit completed the sweep with a 4-1 win behind a pair of power play goals from Doug Brown.
“I don’t think we fully embraced that whole finals experience, but at the same time, we felt, you know what, we’ve got a good team, we’re going to be back here,” said Kolzig, who never again made it out of the first round. “You don’t realize how hard it is to get there. You have to have everything fall into place. You have to be injury-free, everyone’s got to be playing well at the same time.”
“As a player, everything goes fast,” Bondra said. “At the time, I didn’t know that would be my last chance. The 2018 guys, you never know when you’re going to get there. It took the Caps 20 years to get back. They should enjoy it and I hope they have success.”
Kolzig and Bondra, both of whom have held positions with the Capitals since retiring, aren’t the only members of Washington’s 1998 team keeping an eye on this year’s finals.
“I’m happy for those fans,” Juneau said. “It’s been tough for so many years.”
Bellows, who now works as a broker at an investment bank in Minnesota, said he and his family are huge Ovechkin fans. In fact, his son Kieffer, a first-round pick of the Islanders in 2016, named the family dog after the Capitals’ captain. (Kieffer was born on the off day between Game 1 and Game 2 of the ’98 Stanley Cup finals; Pollin made his private plane available to Bellows to fly home to Minnesota to be present for the induced birth.)
“You want to see a guy get rewarded for how great he’s been every year,” Brian Bellows said of Ovechkin. “Every year you can count on him. It’s pretty amazing. How many guys do you see that are  that play that physical, that hard, to help their team win?”
Kolzig plans to travel to D.C. for Games 3 and 4. He sees a lot of similarities between the 1998 Capitals and the team he celebrated with in Tampa Bay on Wednesday. He also suggested this year’s team might have more confidence heading into the finals against the Vegas Golden Knights than he and his teammates did going up against the defending Stanley Cup champion Red Wings.
“Had we won just one of those first two games in Detroit, I think that confidence level and belief would’ve really kicked in,” Kolzig said. “Who knows where it would’ve went. I think the team now, with what they’ve gone through, they just seem like a relaxed bunch. They know the window’s closing on the group. Everybody’s getting a little older. This is as good an opportunity as we’ve had in 20 years. To a man, I don’t think they want to let that go by.”
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