Olie Kolzig, Adam Oates and Calle Johansson were all players on the 1998 Capitals, the franchise’s only team to make it to the Stanley Cup finals. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Fifteen springs ago, the Washington Capitals entered the NHL playoffs with no particular distinction, no definite direction. They had a new general manager, a new coach, a new arena, and nearly a quarter-century into their existence, no real tradition of success. They finished third in the league’s old Atlantic Division and approached the postseason as the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference, middling by definition. Had they lost their first-round matchup against Boston, old-school hockey people between Washington and Winnipeg might have, collectively, shrugged. “I don’t think we had any expectations,” said Adam Oates, then the top-line center. “But I think it was the first year in the playoffs where we actually had talked, in a weird sense, about, ‘We’re going to go all the way,’ ” said Calle Johansson, then the quiet leader of a stalwart group of defensemen.

“And we exorcised a lot of demons,” said Olaf Kolzig, then the young rock of a goalie.

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.

“It was a good hockey team that, as an outsider, I thought was underachieving,” Oates said. “I think, quite honestly, back then they were in a little bit of a funk.”

The trade didn’t overhaul the Capitals’ fortunes immediately, but for Johansson (by then a veteran of 12 years) and Oates (in the midst of his 10th season), there was some relief: Neither had to play against the other.

“He was a pain in the [behind] for me,” Oates said. “I liked guys that tried to be physical with me, because if they’re being physical, then they weren’t playing the puck. Calle was a guy that could skate forever, never got tired, always good stick-on-puck — the absolutely most frustrating guy for a guy like me.”

That would be news to Johansson.

“Whatever I did, he had an answer for it,” Johansson said. “And I also feel that if I [ticked] him off somehow, he’d get mean — dirty mean. And he could hurt you.”

That fall, the Capitals entered a season with the downtown MCI Center (now Verizon Center) as a new home. George McPhee was the new general manager, Ron Wilson the new coach. Tocchet was gone, but Ranford remained and was the starter out of camp.

“I actually thought that Olie should’ve been our starting goalie based on what it looked like in training camp,” McPhee said. “But coaches quite often will go with the established guy until he falters.”

Faltering took less than three minutes into opening night in Toronto, when Ranford took a shot to the groin. He finished the period, but couldn’t continue. Kolzig, entering a season with what he thought might be his last shot at becoming a starter, opened the second period in net, stopped all 19 shots he faced in what became a 4-1 victory – and was the primary goaltender the rest of the season.

“He was a fighter,” Johansson said. “Probably he was not the most technical guy in the world. But he stopped the puck on his will, because he was such a good competitor.”

In those playoffs, Kolzig became a star. “He took over and gave our team so much confidence,” McPhee said. The Capitals beat the Bruins in six games. And quite quickly — with top seeds New Jersey, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia all losing in the first round — they became the team to beat in the East.

“All of a sudden,” Oates said, “you feel good about yourselves.”

‘We want the guys to like us’

Last spring, when McPhee hired Oates to replace Dale Hunter — the captain of that 1998 Capitals team, who stepped down after just half a season as Washington’s coach — Oates had one quick, gut thought about potential assistants: Calle Johansson. Never mind that they hadn’t really kept in touch. Never mind that Johansson was back in his native Sweden, working as a hockey analyst on television. Never mind that Johansson, who had scouted some for the Caps, had only scant coaching experience, none in North America.

Oates asked McPhee for Johansson’s number. “It made sense,” McPhee said. “Long time,” Oates said, by way of catching up. He was direct: Have you ever thought about coaching?

“I was happy, and I was kind of — how stupid it might sound . . .” Johansson said. “But I was proud. Wow. He called me.

Johnansson’s wife knew the area, loved the area. His three daughters were born at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring. The family took no convincing. “Do it,” they told him. And that freed Johansson’s mind to pursue what he knew he missed. It wasn’t the talk in the locker room, being around the guys, the stuff for which so many old athletes yearn. It was, in lots of ways, more important, more basic.

“I missed the . . .” He searched for a word, then pointed to his stomach. “I missed that feeling. I almost missed losing sleep over games. I missed being nervous. I missed being [ticked] off. You always miss the winning. How stupid it might sound, but I missed the losing, too.”

Kolzig was already here, coaching. Tim Hunter, a Caps assistant coach in 1998, returned for a second stint. But Oates and Johannson had to resuscitate a dormant relationship — and deal with their own differences.

“He has ADD,” Johansson joked. “And I don’t.” Oates’s mind tends to spin off on a thought about the NBA, about golf, about whatever, and when it does, it will do so loudly. Johansson is more low-key. Oates was a playmaking center; Johansson, a cerebral defenseman. It is, Oates admits, “really weird” that he thought of Johansson as an assistant coach so quickly. But he said he knew his instinct was right.

“I know the way he thinks the game; I knew the way he thought the game, and it’s the same way I think it,” Oates said.

Johnansson, quite naturally, works closely with the Capitals’ defensemen, a group that has endured injuries and lineup changes, with partners switching more than occasionally. In that swirl, Johansson has tried to be more than just a developer of technique and tactics.

“He tells us, ‘Yeah, I’m the coach, I’ll show you the clips, and I’ll help you learn, but I want to be able to be friends and talk,’ ” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “That’s when you get the true feelings of the guys. You get a better read of the dressing room that way.”

For both Oates and Johansson, it’s imperative the players believe that about them, that they have their best interests in mind. “Old-school coaches?” Oates asked, then dropped his thoughts about them in one clear, derogatory and unprintable term. “I’m not doing this for me,” Johansson said. “I’m doing it for them.”

“We both believe in teaching,” Oates said, “and I know we both believe that at the end of the day, no matter what, we want the guys to like us. If we fail, I know that I want to walk away from the game, and the guys — whether they had success or not — I want them to be able to say, ‘Oatsie treated me good.’ ”

Playing for it all

On the night of June 4, 1998, Capitals veteran Brian Bellows raced down the left wing in Buffalo. Washington led the Sabres in the Eastern Conference finals three games to two, and Game 6 had trickled into overtime. Bellows rushed in on Buffalo goalie Dominik Hasek, who stopped Bellows’s first attempt, his second attempt, and then one final swat. And there, for the rebound, was Joe Juneau, who sent the Capitals into the Stanley Cup finals.

The team that awaited: the Detroit Red Wings, the defending Stanley Cup champions.

“I don’t know if, deep down, we really believed we could beat them,” Kolzig said.

The series began in Detroit, and the Red Wings took a taut 2-1 victory in Game 1. But it was the second game in which the series turned. With the Capitals leading 4-3 midway through the third period, Washington forward Esa Tikannen broke away and completely baffled Red Wings goalie Chris Osgood. The open net was there. Tikannen missed it. In overtime, Kolzig faced his 60th shot of the night, from Kris Draper. He couldn’t stop it, and the Caps lost.

“I think if we would’ve won that game, it would’ve been different,” Kolzig said. “I think we really would’ve had that thought: This could be our year, guys.”

In the end, the Capitals came home to find MCI Center more than dotted with red — the red of Detroit. Washington, as a city, was not at this stage of its hockey development, not yet featuring a sold-out rink every night. The Red Wings fans, filled with the bravado that comes with success, made their presence felt.

“That shocked me,” Johansson said. Still, Bellows forged a 1-1 tie midway through the third period. Until Sergei Fedorov — then a Red Wing, a decade before he would play for Washington — scored five minutes later, the Capitals had hope. After they lost the first three games by a goal apiece, Detroit took Game 4, 4-1, and the sweep was complete.

“If I look back and I kind of want to do something all over again, it would be [to] maybe have a little bit less respect for the Red Wings,” Johansson said. “We had a little too much respect for them. And that’s, I think, why we lose those games. You just don’t lose them by accident. It’s because maybe, deep down inside, we’re saying, ‘Can we really win this?’ I don’t know if everybody really believed it.”

Fifteen springs later, what to believe about this Capitals team — which started so slowly and finished so strong — is a matter of opinion. But should they push through the first round of the playoffs, should they make for hockey late into May and perhaps into June, three men here know what it’s like to pull on Capitals sweaters and play for it all. Precious few know that feeling, because it has only happened once.

“We went through some great times, we went through some bad times,” Kolzig said. “But if we could do it here?”

His eyes widened. His thought ended. He was a Capital then, and he is a Capital now. What it would mean, he can only imagine.